A Classic Catholic Master Does the Met

Domenikos Theotokopolous — “El Greco” to the art world — died in Toledo in 1614. But his works still inspire Christian contemplation, as Catholic patrons of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City will tell you.

Here the artist's works are on display through Jan. 11.

El Greco's son, Jorge, himself a painter, compiled an inventory of his father's effects left in the studio. Included were books in Greek, Latin and Spanish, the Old Testament and New Testament, Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ and the proceedings of the Council of Trent.

It would be wise to keep this inventory in mind when viewing the current exhibit. “El Greco was a humanist,” says Marcus Burke, curator of painting at the Hispanic Society of America. “He was also a Neoplatonist.” Such a reading of El Greco explains the painter's fondness for dematerialized forms, those straining and sinewy bodies that yearn to ascend from earthly constraints and reach a world of heavenly forms.

Bear in mind, too, that the artist was a son of the (Catholic) Counter-Reformation. His personal readings in the decrees and enactments of Trent, along with his own knowledge of the Tridentine reform, require us to view him not merely as a painter employed in the service of the Church but as a conscious participant in the response to the Protestant revolt.

It is a credit to the curators of this exhibit and the twin custodians, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery in London, that the painter is presented not merely as a master whose techniques are worthy of admiration — but also as a man of faith whose unambiguously religious message is worth considering.

Triumphs of Toledo

On display here are approximately 70 works by El Greco; the selections span the entirety of his career. Arranged chronologically and thematically in seven individual rooms, they show his development as an icon painter on the island of Crete through his west-ward transfer to Venice, then Rome, and finally his arrival in Toledo, the very hub of the Counter-Reformation. Altogether, his works from the Toledo period occupy five of the seven galleries and bring the exhibit to a stunning and memorable finale.

Most of El Greco's best-known works are here at the Met. These include St. Jerome, A View of Toledo, St. Martin and the Beggar, St. Louis King of France and a Page, Saints Peter and Paul and numerous renderings of St. Francis. For Catholics, it is the major commissions from the Toledo period that will pique particular interest.

The subject matter of El Greco's religious art is strictly Tridentine: He aims to demonstrate the principles and tenets of the Council of Trent. Whatever may be said of his trademark style — the distortion of reality, the elongated faces and bodies, the otherworldly illumination coming from within the sacred personages depicted — it's evident El Greco intended to make his works catechetical. Clearly, he sought to amplify and underscore Catholic teaching.

Toledo, the city that would adopt El Greco, was brimming with religious fervor. Its printing presses were turning out tracts on the devout life. The streets were clogged with confraternities of the zealous. Monasteries were springing up to accommodate all the new priests and religious.

Cultural Camelot

It was in this milieu of Catholic robusto that El Greco worked and breathed. His St. Jerome shows the Doctor of Sacred Scripture in his study dressed as a Renaissance scholar. His crimson cardinal's cope and his flowing white beard tell us that he is a source of authority, the author of the Vulgate. Where Protestantism had urged the private interpretation of Scripture, the Counter-Reformation would insist that Scripture was the Church's book.

Where the reformers questioned the salvific value of good works, El Greco replied with his memorable St. Martin and the Beggar, which stressed the divine merit earned by corporal deeds of mercy. Indeed the exhibit is replete with El Greco's treatment of the saints. The doctrine of intercession was denied by Lutherans and others, and it proved a fertile field for Counter-Reformation iconography.

El Greco's saints are often displayed in attitudes of penitence. St. Peter is portrayed with hands clasped tightly, the fingers interlaced (St. Peter in Penitence). The saint's eyes glisten as he gazes heavenward. Le lagrime di Cristo is transferred to Peter, who now represents the Ignatian model for the believer. The cave in the background recalls Manressa and Loyola's retreat into the wilderness.

There is much discussion today about faith and culture; hence the Church's creation of a pontifical council to address the subject. With that in mind, it seems that all Catholics would benefit from a visit to this current exhibit.

Toledo in the late 16th century represents a kind of cultural Camelot for Roman Catholics. In the person of El Greco, the truths of the faith were replicated in supernumerary canvases and placed in innumerable churches and monasteries. They helped “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) in the manner of St. Francis: without need of words. Catholics will adore this very Catholic show.

Jim Sullivan writes from Fairfield, Connecticut.