After all the bad news coming out of Chicago—the vandalism, looting, attacks against the police in the name of social justice, many homicides, depredations of the virus—it was good to finally get some good news from America’s third-largest city: On July 30th, after being closed for four months, the Art Institute of Chicago reopened for in-person visits. And the best thing about that was that finally we could get to see the 57-painting special exhibit of one of the best painters of Catholic spirituality of all time: El Greco (1541-1614), who, along with his contemporaries Tintoretto and Michelangelo, most eloquently expresses our spiritual yearning for God and the grace of God illuminating his creatures.
The Art Institute already has in its permanent collection some of El Greco’s finest religious paintings—including the huge, very moving Assumption of the Virgin as well as Christ Taking Leave of His Mother, St. Francis Kneeling in Meditation, and Saint Martin and the Beggar—but the special exhibit (which now runs until October 19, 2020) also presents paintings by the master from the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid as well as several other museums in Spain, including in Toledo (where El Greco lived from 1577 to 1614), and many other museums in Europe and North America. The exhibit is an exemplary display of what used to be called—before people got fearful—Western civilization, or, as Kenneth Clark put it more simply, civilisation. That 57 such wonderful paintings could be transported from so many distant cities and assembled in one place, in the middle of America, is itself an achievement of civilization.
My wife and I hadn’t driven from our home in Joliet, Illinois, into Chicago since March, and the vandalism and looting of the high-end stores on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile the early morning of August 10th, and then the attacks on the police the day before our visit on August 16th, made us wary. But we knew that El Greco was worth the trip, and we drove past Soldier Field, the Field Museum, and Lake Michigan without incident. When we entered the exhibit, the number of people in the halls was not large, no doubt due in part to people avoiding the city after all the bad news.
Nearly every time we visit the Art Institute, I take time to ponder the wonderful Assumption of the Virgin. In the top half of the 13-foot-tall painting, we see the Blessed Mother, her feet on a white fingernail moon (cf. Rev 12:1), being assumed into heaven, where she is surrounded by angels. Below, we see an empty tomb, a sarcophagus, and variously startled and devout disciples of the Lord reacting to this singular event. The Virgin we see from below, the sarcophagus from above. Kneeling at the lower right of the painting is a bearded man looking up with devotion and love toward the Virgin, his right hand upraised, light illuminating his hand and his neck, face, and lower leg.
So many of El Greco’s paintings show people responding to the divine light, turning toward the light of God. The repentant St. Peter looks up to heaven, his strong bearded face suffused with the heavenly light, his hands raised prayerfully and clasped in front of him as he prays for God’s mercy, the keys of the kingdom dangling from his forearm. The penitent Mary Magdalene also looks up to heaven, her shining, imploring eyes preternaturally viscous with longing, her long, curly, reddish-blond hair flowing down to her bare forearm. An opening in the clouds in the stormy sky above suggests that God is responding graciously to her plea. One pleasure of this exhibit is that we can see two or more versions of these two and other subjects and see what is similar and what is different in the paintings. El Greco painted The Penitent Magdalene four times, including the two paintings in the exhibit.
El Greco is famous for his elongated figures, particularly the fingers. In Christ Taking Leave of His Mother, we are drawn to the four hands of Mother and Son, their left and right hands intertwined, the fingers of their other hands pointing in different directions. “I must go now and do the Father’s will, to offer my life as a ransom for many,” we can hear Christ telling his mother, whose right hand points toward her heart and calm face, signaling her acceptance. The faces of Jesus and Mary are beautiful, full of light, peace, yearning, acceptance; I can think of no other painting that shows such an expression of pure love between two people. As is doctrinally fitting, Jesus and Mary look alike. Yet even in this simple scene, El Greco gives us a sense of the drama of life. Life is a spiritual drama, the painter suggests; we can say yes or no to the grace God freely offers us. Our spiritual destiny hangs in the balance, depending on how we choose.
Also characteristic of El Greco’s work are the vivid colors and play of spiritual light on the cloaks of Peter, Magdalene, the Virgin being assumed into heaven, and others, all yearning for heaven. The light on the cloak of the Virgin of the Assumption points us toward the Blessed Mother’s womb, the tabernacle of the Most High.
The Assumption of the Virgin is one of nine paintings El Greco painted for the main and side altars at Santo Domingo el Antiguo, the church of the Cistercian convent in Toledo. This was the largest project of El Greco’s life; it was painted during the first of El Greco’s 37 years in Toledo. In The Assumption, the kneeling man looking awestruck toward the rising Virgin grasps a sign that reads, in Greek, “Domenikos Theotokopoulos [El Greco’s given name] the Cretan displayed this 1577.” One exciting thing about this exhibit is that, for the first time in nearly 200 years, three of the paintings from Santo Domingo—The Assumption, The Holy Trinity, and The Holy Face— have been reunited, after having been removed from the church and sold separately. Toledo was the home of the Spanish royal court before King Philip II moved the court and the capital to Madrid in 1561; but Toledo Cathedral remained the center of Spanish Catholicism during El Greco’s life.
El Greco was buried in Santo Domingo; his last painting, The Adoration of the Shepherds at Christ’s nativity, adorned his grave. The figure of St. Joseph kneeling before the resplendent Christ Child is El Greco’s self-portrait. The shepherd standing next to St. Joseph is a portrait of El Greco’s son Jorge Manuel Theotokopoulos, also a painter, who worked in his father’s workshop. It is fitting that father and son together are adoring the baby Jesus, whose spiritual glow illumines their faces, as well as that of the Blessed Mother.
Domenikos Theotokopoulos was born and raised in Crete, where he was trained in the strict traditions of Byzantine icon painting, before residences in Venice (1567-1570) and Rome (1570-77). In Venice El Greco learned from the work of the Venetian artists Tintoretto, Titian, and Bassano. El Greco particularly learned from Tintoretto’s “scenes of heightened drama with audaciously posed figures and an unerring sense of the visionary,” Keith Christiansen writes. In Italy and Spain Theotokopoulos was known as El Greco, the Greek.
“Painting deals with the impossible,” wrote El Greco, who goes beyond “what the eye sees—the world of external appearances” in order to give us a vision of “an idea and form in the intellect” and spirit, wrote a friend of the painter’s. El Greco is the artistic analogue of the great mystic St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), who described the states of prayer rising to ecstasy and the “mystic marriage” of man and God.
It thus is fitting that one of the last works by this visionary painter is The Vision of Saint John, an unfinished painting depicting the elongated figure of the visionary John in ecstasy, in an illuminated bluish-white robe, his arms raised, his palms open to heaven, his eyes looking up to heaven with the posture of someone at a charismatic prayer meeting. El Greco shows us the moment when the Lamb of God, Christ, has opened the fifth seal, and, Revelation relates, “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God… [T]hey were given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (Rev 6: 9-11). In the painting, three naked men are reaching to receive the white robes of the just from the flying cherubim. Near St. John lies a red robe, emblematic of the blood of the martyrs.
El Greco’s reputation languished for the centuries after his death, until the Parisian avant-garde of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries rediscovered his vivid colors, yearning figures, and dramatic scenes. The drama of El Greco’s work, including the dark, apocalyptic sky in his View of Toledo, is reflected in the landscapes and figures of the Impressionists and Expressionists.
After the heightened spiritual awareness of El Greco’s work, it was a rude shock to cross the bridge over the Chicago River, drive up Michigan Avenue, and see the plywood covering the display windows of Nordstrom, Louis Vuitton, Nike, the Disney Store, Timberland, Neiman Marcus, and other stores on the Magnificent Mile, the Fifth Avenue of Chicago. The glass had been shattered, the contents looted. Some of the plywood had been painted over; the same medium that El Greco had worked in was now covering the wounds of crime. Mask-wearing citizens walked by the painted or unpainted plywood seemingly oblivious to the carnage but knowing full well what had happened. The masks ward off the coronavirus but not the social viruses that can eviscerate a city.
Civilization is fragile. The base of one of the bronze lions guarding the Art Institute was defaced with graffiti earlier this year. In other cities, the statue of St. Louis, the subject of one of El Greco’s paintings in the exhibit, as well as statues of the Blessed Mother and other Catholic saints, have been threatened or vandalized. May we safeguard the works of the artists and artisans who can point us toward heaven.
Author’s note: The special exhibit shows paintings from the Art Institute of Chicago, the Louvre (co-sponsor of the exhibit, along with the Grand Palais, also in Paris, which presented another version of the exhibit earlier), the Prado and other museums in Spain, the National Galleries of Athens, London, Washington, D.C., and Ottawa, the Walters in Baltimore, the Metropolitan in New York City, the Getty in Los Angeles, and other leading museums in (in America) Philadelphia, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Fort Worth, Boston, San Diego, San Francisco, Toledo, Ohio, and Minneapolis and (in Europe) Copenhagen, Munich, and Bergamo, Italy.
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