Arts: El Greco vs. the Icon Painters of Crete

The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete, a survey of Christian religious paintings from Crete during the period in which Venice dominated the island. Onassis Cultural Center, New York, New York. (This exhibit is now closed.)

If you don’t think that one art exhibit can’t strongly influence your thinking about everything from faith to commerce, think again. This awesome exhibit explores the intersection of creativity, Christianity, cultural ferment and the evolution of one of Western art’s masters Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614), also known as El Greco. Working in his early years on the Greek island of Crete where he was born – he left for Venice at age 26 – El Greco for a brief period became an integral part of the island’s centuries-old icon painting tradition.

Noted for his youthful prowess, El Greco moved beyond the Byzantine and Gothic styles that dominated, reflecting his embrace of Renaissance artists’ long-term adoption of religious themes, taking Christian imagery out of the churches and into the mainstream of art, culture and international exchange.

Multicultural Crete had become a center for several styles, alla greca or a stricter Greek or Byzantine style, and a la latina, a more late Gothic style that appealed to the Roman Catholic minority that held power after Venice took control of Crete in 1211. The island’s hospitable climate appealed to icon painters from Constantinople whose numbers multiplied substantially after the Ottoman Muslim takeover of that capital in 1453. Then came the native El Greco who added a third dimension – a rebellious, youthful and masterful painterliness that ultimately surpassed his Cretan compatriots in a worldly way.


Top: A tiny portrait by El Greco within 'The Entombment of Christ' shows his mastery of detail. This head is less than 2 inches tall. Below: Detail from 'The Adoration of the Magi' by Michael Damaskenos (1530-1592), one of the 'named' icon painters in the show. There indeed are Renaissance effects in the Damaskenos icon, but the rocks give its essence away.

It always is suggested than an artist put his best paintings by the exhibit door so that visitors will see them first, to set the tone. The OnassisCulturalCenter, in its diminutive space under the lobby of a Manhattan skyscraper, hits you hard with seven works by El Greco that you see first upon entry.

Each behind protective glass as if to restate their importance to religious painting but more significantly to Western culture as a whole, they truly are relics from a distant past painted as they are on primeval wooden panels with the oil and tempera often dark and cracked and one frame looking like it had survived centuries in a barn without attention. These pictures reek of history and unrestored authenticity, and of El Greco’s status.

El Greco brought an even more modernist and mannerist thinking to Crete’s religious icon culture than had already filtered in through several centuries of circulation of Renaissance prints. Through these prints, Crete’s painters had been exposed to the new and exciting motifs that evolved from early Renaissance masters like Cimabue and Giotto that then morphed over centuries into the ultra-refined oeuvres of Michelangelo and Leonardo and beyond to Raphael and Titian. In other words, the secular art world impacted the religious one, infusing it with new ideas and energy.

These influences marked a diminution of the power of traditional Byzantine-style icon painting. And to this day that style has been seen as the authentic style of the original Orthodox Church and has not changed.

In El Greco’s rough study for Coronation of the Virgin, emotions run wild. Despite its sketchy and gestural appearance, it radiates mastery of painterly form. In the The Entombment of Christ, painted on a curved panel, we have another example of what the show’s curator calls “organized tumult” in the composition, certainly a departure from icon painters’ generally reverent, staid compositions, distinctly without “tumult” and expectedly so. El Greco also moves away from the flat icon style to experiment with space of all kinds. Tiny heads and garment folds are painted with aplomb, revealing the kind of craftsmanship and attention to detail that created modern Western art.

In one El Greco panel that provokes a smile, St. Luke the Evangelist Painting the Icon of the Virgin of 1560-1567 is a classical ‘painting within a painting’. St. Luke himself long has been eroded away from the panel leaving a gritty outline behind, but the Virgin remains bright as ever as if she is, well, somehow blessed(?!) St. Luke’s painting of her, on an easel, in gold gilt, is parallel to the picture plane while the easel itself is set dimensionally. Is El Greco playing sly spatial mind games here? The Christ child’s head is but an inch tall and El Greco somehow handles even something so preciously small with stunning verve and accuracy.

Aside the work of El Greco, this exhibit shows us centuries of icon paintings by Crete’s masters of the craft. Crete was a place of international effervescence where cultures from all over the Mediterranean merged and melded into a delicious stew of competing styles. The icon painters, being business savvy, tailored their work to clients from Constantinople to Athens to Rome according to those clients’ historical tastes.

Nikolas Tzafouris is one of the big names of the traditional icon style. In The Road to Calvary, from late in the 15th century, Christ is depicted with all of the attention to detail that makes art lovers swoon. The energetic and intensely detailed rendering of angular rocks done in the style of icon painting – to separate it from temporal art – along with the delicate grain in the wood of the cross would make Tzafouris stand out in any era.

The Crucifixion by Andre Pavias from the late 15th century has all the hallmarks of a classical religious icon and much more – a crucified Savior, crowds of mourners, castles thrusting into the sky, angels, soldiers, priests, warriors, hell, and even bodies arising from their caskets. It looks like Pavias may have been directly influenced by the bizarre tableaux paintings of contemporary Hieronymus Bosch, the Flemish artist whose canvases were chock full of tiny figures in every disposition. Yet Pavias’ composition is surprisingly orderly and geometric, as if the artist does not want to detract from its real meaning, which is veneration of the God-ly order that makes all life possible.

Other icon painters like Geroge Klontzas (1540-1608) offer us a 24-inch-tall panel with literally hundreds of tiny figures, with everything from Adam and Eve and the serpent, to Adam and Eve expelled, all in one.

Michael Damaskenos, one of the most famous icon artists in all of the Mediterranean basin, also is represented in this show. Out of more than 40 religious paintings, however, most are not attributed but every one is unmistakably Christian, recognizable for the religion but not for the artist.

So what is it about this exhibit that reveals so much?

It is this: By placing El Greco side-by-side with the renowned icon painters of Crete, we can see the difference not only in styles, but in motivation, dedication and intent. Icon painters are not well known to history while worldly artists like El Greco are.

Christian icon painters in fact are artists who are subservient to the greater glory of God. Their work is intentionally formulaic (elongated figures, halos, stylized rocks and drapery folds etc.). The icon maker does not seek to elevate himself – ideally, that is – and is not in any way as significant culturally as the fervor that his work is intended to engender in the worshipping congregations.

No, the icon painter is offering himself as a servant to God, while the worldly artist like El Greco sees his inspiration coming from God. Their relationships with the Heavenly Father are diametrically opposed. To be perfectly crass about it, we might say that El Greco and the Renaissance masters simply used religious iconography as a tool to advance their careers because that is where the broader public mind was at the time.

What genuine icon painter would put himself above Our Father who art in Heaven?

None. And if you did so, you would probably need to find another line of work. Your spirit would become highly conflicted, and that never is a good idea.

That is made clear here. These religious icons show us traditional styles that shifted in a fascinating way with the cultural winds as Renaissance prints made their way across the Mediterranean. But ultimately, a religious painter is exactly that – a subservient vessel for the expression of something greater than any of us, including El Greco.

El Greco, on the other hand, in his secular role as a prodigy, certainly had the freedom to pursue his own agenda without the formal boundaries or intense personal commitment and fervor of the icon makers. He was innovative and individualistic, certainly a negative in the sphere of Christian deference to the Supreme Being. He surely broke out of parochial Crete for a reason: Because he wanted to make a mark outside the strictures of rigorous church painting, despite its expanding horizons.

Does that make him more significant historically that George Klontzas or Nikolas Tzafouris?

Well, it depends on what you think is really important in life.

If your interest is in cultural advancement, artistic transcendence or temporal originality, then El Greco wins. He certainly is the drawing card for this show which has been wildly popular in its brief run in New York. Amazingly admission is free and you get an extra bonus as you peruse the art – a soundtrack of Greek Orthodox monks chanting Byzantine prayers, making it a multi-sense experience.

If, on the other hand, you understand that God makes everything possible, perhaps you might take a different view, that Klontzas and Tzafouris, in their humble service to the glory of God, are the real stars of this show. And that even if their work had remained anonymous like most of the icons on exhibit, that that would ultimately make no difference at all. And therein lies the real story of this wonderful show.

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