19 March 2014

Art for Lent (15): ‘Saint Joseph and the
Christ Child’ (ca 1597) by El Greco

‘Saint Joseph and the Christ Child’ by Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco) in the Chapel of San José, Toledo

Patrick Comerford

Today in the Calendar of the Church is the Feast of Saint Joseph of Nazareth [19 March]. The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: II Samuel 7: 4-16; Psalm 89: 26-36; Romans 4: 13-18; and Matthew 1: 18-25.

Next month marks the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco, who was born Domenikos Theotokopoulos in Crete in 1541 and died in Toledo on 7 April 1614. My choice of a work of Art for Lent this morning [19 March 2014] is ‘Saint Joseph and the Christ Child’ by El Greco.

This work was painted in oil on canvas (ca 1597-1599), measuring 289 x 147 cm, is in the Chapel of San José, Toledo. A smaller signed version, also in oil on canvas (ca 1600), measures 109 cm x 56 cm and is in the Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo.

El Greco was a visionary artist who exaggerated the Mannerist style of replacing realistic portrayals of the world with personal interpretations. A painter of mesmerising religious and mystical works filled with chilly colours and flame-like figures, he only used light for emotional impact. He also created compelling portraits, and Europe’s first true landscapes.

He was born Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος (Doménikos Theotokópoulos) in 1541 in Crete, then a part of Venetian Empire and the centre of post-Byzantine art. Although most biographers say he was born in Iraklion, tradition in Crete says he was born in the village of Fodele west of Iraklion, on the road to Rethymnon.

After Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, many Byzantine iconographers and artists moved to Venetian-ruled Crete. In the late 15th century, the principles of Renaissance art were introduced from Venice into Crete, giving rise to the Cretan School of Icon Painting, distinguished by the perfection of figures, which are depicted as more human, and the attention to detail, rendered in rich colours.

One of the leading exponents of the Cretan School in Iraklion, then known as Candia, was Michael Damaskinos (Μιχαήλ Δαμασκηνός, ca1535-ca1592-1593), who lived and worked in Venice for many years. He probably established the rules of the Cretan School, and six of his icons are in the Church of Saint Catherine in Iraklion. Other representatives of the Cretan School are Georgios Klontzas (Γεώργιος Κλόντζας) and Theophanes the Cretan (Θεοφάνης Στρελίτζας, Theophanis Strelitzas).

Saint Catherine’s Church, Iraklion ... at the centre of the Cretan School of Iconography (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Against this background, Doménikos Theotokópoulos (El Greco) was trained in Iraklion. He became a master in the post-Byzantine tradition before leaving Crete at in his mid 20s for Venice. where he met the great Titian. He was following in the footsteps of many other great Greek artists and would never return to Crete.

In 1570, he moved to Rome, where he opened a workshop and painted a series of works. During this time in Italy, El Greco enriched his style with elements of Mannerism and the Venetian Renaissance. Yet he was so individual an artist that he belongs to no conventional school.

El Greco continued to sign his name in Greek when he was working in Toledo

In 1577, he moved to Toledo, Spain, where he lived and worked until his death. “El Greco” (The Greek) was a nickname, a reference to his Greek origins, and he normally signed his paintings with his full birth name in Greek letters, often adding the word Κρής (“Cretan”).

He is best known for tortuously elongated figures and often fantastic pigmentation, marrying Byzantine traditions with those of Western painting. His dramatic and expressionistic style was met with puzzlement by his contemporaries but found appreciation in the 20th century.

In Toledo, El Greco received several major commissions and produced his best-known paintings. He painted ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ for the altarpiece of his own tomb in Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo.

He began the paintings for the high altar and side altars of the Chapel of San José in Toledo in 1597, and completed them by the end of 1599.

The Chapel was dedicated to Saint Joseph, Saint Teresa’s favourite saint. She spoke him as “the Father of my Soul.” At first, the founder, Martín Ramírez (d. 1595), intended to build a chapel for her Saint Teresa. The paintings for the high altar, which are still in place, depict Saint Joseph and the Christ Child, and above, the Coronation of the Virgin. In the side chapels are Saint Martin and the Beggar and the Virgin and Child with Saints.

In the central painting of Saint Joseph and the Christ Child, Saint Joseph is shown as a figure of trust and protection to the Christ Child, who indicates the way. The colours, the rhythm of the tower-like figure of Saint Joseph, express perfectly the meaning of the painting.

In the background we can see one of El Greco’s early landscape views of Toledo. But none of the view is lost, for the figures of Saint Joseph and the Christ Child merely divide it in two.

A monument to El Greco in El Greco Park in the centre of Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

El Greco is seen as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism. His personality and works have inspired poets and writers from Rainer Maria Rilke to Nikos Kazantzakis.

In Iraklion, the Historical Museum of Crete has two original works by El Greco, the only original works by the artist in Crete: ‘The Baptism of Christ’ (1567) and ‘Landscape of the Mountain and the Monastery of Saint Catherine, Mount Sinai’ (1570). The Museum of El Greco, opposite a chapel in Archontiko on the edge of Fodele, is housed in what is said to be his birthplace. The museum exhibits include copies of his works and documents associated with El Greco. The original building was in ruins before it was restored from 1982 on, and it opened in 1998.

In 1990, I attended a major exhibition of El Greco’s works organised by the City of Iraklion to mark the 450th anniversary of his birth.

The Greek composer Vangelis has worked on three projects about El Greco. His album Φόρος Τιμής Στον Γκρέκο (Foros Timis Ston Greco, Tribute to El Greco) was released in 1995, when I attended a concert by the composer in Athens. I still treasure my copy (415/3,000) of the album which was published in 1995 as a limited edition of 3,000 CD-audios by the National Art Gallery and Alexandros Soutzos Museum in Athens to raise funds to buy El Greco’s Saint Peter.

Vangellis expanded this work with three more tracks on El Greco in 1998. Then in 2007, he composed the soundtrack for the movie El Greco, released on CD as El Greco Original Motion Picture Soundtrack in Greece in 2007.

The 2007 Greek biographical movie El Greco is based on the fictionalised biographical novel, El Greco Δομήνικος θεοτοκόπουλος Ο Ζωγράφος του θεού (El Greco: o Zografos tou Theou, El Greco: the Painter of God), by Dimitris Siatopoulos. It is directed by Yannis Smaragdis and written by Jackie Pavlenko. The main cast includes Greek actors Lakis Lazopoulos, Dimitra Matsouka, Dina Konsta, Sotiris Moustakas and Katerina Helmi, along with Juan Diego Botto, Laia Marull and others, with Nick Ashdon playing El Greco.

To mark the 400th anniversary of El Greco’s death on 7 April 1614, an exhibition, ‘The Greek of Toledo,’ is being held from this month (March) until June in the city where he spent the last period of his career. The exhibition is being staged at the Museum of Santa Cruz, and different ‘El Greco Venues’ throughout Toledo, including the Chapel of San José, the Vestry of Toledo Cathedral, the Convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, the Church of Santo Tomé and the Tavera Hospital.

A seafront exhibition in Iraklion 2013 on the making of the movie ‘El Greco’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Collect Two

God our Father,
who from the family of your servant David
raised up Joseph the carpenter
to be the guardian of your incarnate Son
and husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
Give us grace to follow his example
of faithful obedience to your commands;
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Tomorrow:The Shadow of Death’ (1873) by William Holman Hunt.

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