El Greco, Pentecost, 1596-1599, The Prado, Madrid.
To be honest, I couldn’t decide which picture to show you yesterday, either the painting by Plautilla Nelli (Picture Of The Day 75), or this one – so I decided I would talk about both. The theological content of the painting has been covered just as much as I wanted to then, though, so if you missed it, have a read of that first!
The basic ideas are of course similar to the two versions we saw yesterday. The Virgin Mary is central and surrounded by the apostles, who not only frame our view of the Virgin, but also allow our access to the group. Like Plautilla Nelli’s version, the tongues of flame rest above the heads of everyone present, although the mood is far more like the ecstatic transport of inspiration evoked by Botticelli, even if his broad, curving lines are replaced by El Greco’s flame-like, etiolated forms. I would like to say that the proportions of the figures are directly related to the subject matter, but by this stage in his career everyone El Greco painted was equally immaterial, expressing a religious fervour which is unparalleled in Western art. His style does fit especially well here, though, and seems to predict the behavior of people in contemporary evangelical churches who are speaking in tongues – about which, of course, El Greco would have known nothing. As ever, I am intrigued by the number of people present: fifteen. The Virgin Mary, and the twelve Apostles, certainly – as in Botticelli – but also a couple of additions, although not as many as in Nelli’s painting.
The peculiar appearance of this image relates to its structure. It is oil paint on canvas, and would originally have been framed with a semi-circular arch – so the brown sections top left and right would not have been visible. As it is, we can see how the artist used these spaces to wipe his brush clean from time to time. The dove of the Holy Spirit appears at the very apex, glowing in a yellow which was one of El Greco’s favourites – he often used it to structure the image, as we will see below. Rather than beams of light, it is the brushstrokes themselves which link the dove to the apostles, painted freely and thinly, with the rich, red-brown ground showing through, adding to the flickering of the tongues of flame. The gestures of the group add to this flickering, each hand appearing like another flame, blowing in the wind, as the apostles look around, at each other and upwards – with one exception: the face second from the right. This is always assumed to be a portrait, looking out at us. It is either El Greco himself (although it doesn’t look that much like the self portrait in his masterpiece, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz), or his friend, Antonio Covarrubias. It doesn’t look that much like him either, though. The other ‘excess’ person is Mary Magdalene, just to our right of the Virgin. To be honest, there is nothing to identify her – no jar of ointment, no flowing red hair – but there isn’t another single woman it could be. The apostle on the far left in blue lifts up his hand, connecting the main mass of the group to the sky, and so up to the Holy Spirit, and his gesture is echoed by the man in light blue on the far right, whose arm stretches downwards.
The arm reaching down connects the upper group with those lower in the composition. Given the tall, thin proportions of the painting, El Greco has to be extremely inventive in the way he fits everyone in. The hand that reaches into the lower group frames the face of the man in green looking up. He is the lynchpin, holding the top and bottom of the painting together, as El Greco keeps us looking up and down to draw the two halves of the painting into one whole. A man next to the apostle in green, wearing red and white, reaches his arm over his head, and looks into the painting, encouraging us to do the same – and at the bottom, two more people encourage us to look both in and up. On the left is a very young man in green and red (it’s a credit to El Greco’s art that he can make the back of someone’s head look so very young): this is St John the Evangelist. And on the right, leaning back, gesturing, in his traditional yellow and blue, is St Peter.
Notice how Peter’s yellow cloak reaches down to the very bottom of the painting. The yellow is picked up by the robes of the apostle just beside the Virgin, and then by the divine glow around the Holy Spirit: the yellow ties the whole painting together. Similarly John’s green ties him to the two apostles next to Mary, at both shoulder and knee height. The reds remain in the lower half of the painting. John and Peter seem transported, the one foot of each that we can see has just the toes touching lightly on the ground, and there is a progression of gestures upwards, from Peter’s left hand, through both of John’s, to the man in pale blue reaching down and the one in mid-blue reaching up.
This is an example of El Greco at his very best, I think. If you want to catch up on his personal history, I talked about him a bit in POTD 19, but, in brief, Domenikos Theotokopoulos was born on the island of Crete in 1541, grew up there and trained as an Orthodox icon painter. Crete was part of the Venetian Republic, and in 1567 he moved to La Serenissima, where they couldn’t pronounce his name (well, that’s the assumption), so everyone called him ‘The Greek’ (although he was Cretan, all members of the Orthodox Church were referred to as ‘Greek’). He was hugely influenced by contemporary Venetian art, notably the works of Titian, and especially by the free-flowing, highly spiritual forms of Tintoretto. He moved to Rome in 1570, and then to Spain in 1577, settling in Toledo, the headquarters of the church in Spain (even now it stands in relationship to Madrid in the same way that Canterbury does to London). Today’s picture comes from his most important commission in Madrid, though, the altarpiece for the chapel of the Colegio de la Encarnación de Madrid, which was also known as the Colegio de doña María de Aragón. As a result, the ensemble is referred to as the Doña María de Aragón Altarpiece – although this is academic, as the altarpiece was dismantled in 1810 as a result of the Napoleonic suppression of religious orders. Five of the paintings are still in Madrid, and a sixth (bottom left) has somehow ended up in Bucharest. There is no known record of the original appearance of the altarpiece, although it is known to have included seven paintings and five sculptures – the seventh painting and all of the sculptures are presumably lost, or have not yet been identified. However, it seems likely that the lost painting went under the Annunciation, in the centre at the bottom. The surviving images were probably arranged something like this.
At the top, we see the The Resurrection, The Crucifixion and Pentecost, and underneath The Adoration of the Shepherds, The Annunciation, and The Baptism of Christ. This is a very rapid summary of Jesus’s life, death, and afterlife.
The remarkable thing about El Greco’s unique style was that, however popular it was with a particular clientele during his lifetime, it had no particular impact on other contemporary artists. However, it would ring true for so many painters in the 20th Century. Picasso’s blue and rose periods would have been almost unthinkable without El Greco, for example. On the Prado’s website you can find a video relating to their exhibition ‘El Greco and Modern Painting’, which they mounted for the 4th Centenary of the master’s death in 2014. I’ll leave you with one of my own comparisons chosen at random, though: Picasso’s Acrobat on a Ball of 1905.