05 January 2014

Art for Christmas (12): ‘The Adoration
of the Shepherds’ by El Greco

‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ by El Greco

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Second Sunday of Christmas [5 January 2015] and the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Jeremiah 31: 7-14; Psalm 147: 12-20; Ephesians 1: 3-14; John 1: [1-9], 10-18.

The Gospel reading, the Collect and the Post-Communion Prayer emphasise Christ’s coming into the world as the Light. My choice of a work of Art for Christmas and for meditation this morning is The Adoration of the Shepherds in which the great Greek artist El Greco (1541-1614), uses light and shade brilliant colours to heighten the awe and majesty of the birth of the Christ Child.

This great masterpiece was painted by El Greco in 1612-1614 to hang over his own tomb in the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo. The painting was later transferred to the high altar of the Monastery of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, and it was acquired by the Museo del Prado in Madrid in 1954. It is painted in oil on canvas and measures 319 cm × 180 cm (126 in × 71 in).

El Greco 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)

It was against this background that 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. But he painted The Adoration of the Shepherds for the altarpiece of his own tomb in Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo.

El Greco began working on the The Adoration of the Shepherds in 1612, finishing it two years later, just before his death. El Greco’s signature in Greek is in the lower left corner. His assistant, Luis Tristán, said El Greco was working on The Adoration of the Shepherds until his death. He died on 7 April 1614.

There is a great deal of contrast between light and shade in this work, with the combination of this and the picture’s brilliant colours intended to further heighten the sense that we are witnessing a world-changing event. The bright, dissonant colours and the strange shapes and poses create a sense of wonder and ecstasy, as the shepherds and the angels celebrate the birth of the Christ Child.

The artist’s profound religiosity and hit ever-increasing mysticism are reflected in the expressions of astonishment on the faces of the shepherds as they contemplate the luminous image of the Christ Child shown to them with great care by the Virgin Mary.

His combination of the angels and the shepherds is intended to convey an image of ecstatic wonder.

The image of the kneeling shepherd with hands joined in prayer and veneration is probably a self-portrait that reflects El Greco’s own piety. His eyes are level with the Christ Child and seem to establish an intense dialogue through their gaze.

In a style that is typical of El Greco’s final works, the bodies of the shepherds are considerably distorted, contrasting with the more classical appearance of the angels who fly above. The angels hover over the scene One holds a banderole with words that were probably added later: “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace.” Another crosses his arms in a pose similar to that of the shepherd below.

The Christ Child radiates a light that plays off the faces of the barefoot shepherds who are paying their homage, and the dazzling white cloth on which the child lies illuminates the figures of the Virgin Mary and the shepherds. A rhythmic energy brings the painting to life and is expressed in the dance-like motions of the figures. There are striking contrasts between light and dark passages and these help to heighten the sense of drama.

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,’ will be held from March to June this year [2014] 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 Vestry of Toledo Cathedral, the Chapel of San José, the Convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, the Church of Santo Tomé and the Tavera Hospital.

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


Almighty God,
in the birth of your Son
you have poured on us the new light of your incarnate Word,
and shown us the fullness of your love:
Help us to walk in this light and dwell in his love
that we may know the fullness of his joy;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Light eternal,
you have nourished us in the mystery
of the body and blood of your Son:
By your grace keep us ever faithful to your word,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tomorrow: ‘The Adoration of the Magi,’ by Peter Paul Rubens.

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