Traveling Classroom Foundation
Monday October 2nd 2023

El Greco: Old Becomes New

Driving west of Iraklion on the E75 highway, we turned southward toward Fodele (pronounced Foe-deh-lay). The road runs through the lush Pantomantris river valley filled with citrus groves and native forest. Fodele is a quiet farming village is known for its oranges and macramé artists, but it is mainly noted as the place where Domenikos Theotokopoulos, popularly known as El Greco (The Greek), was born in 1541. We came to visit the El Greco museum.

The platia of Fodele village is dominated by a thousand-year old plane tree An ancient plane (platanos) tree dominates the central platia of Fodele village

Passing through the village square beneath a thousand-year-old plane tree, we could see the river flowing through in a canal designed to prevent spring flooding. However, during summer months the river becomes a shallow stream, perfect for wading on a hot day.

About a kilometer beyond the village, we parked near the 14th century Byzantine chapel of Panagia (Holy Mother). There are beautiful murals inside, but the doors were locked (churches do not leave valuable art unattended).

Byzantine church of Panagia (Holy Mother) near the El Greco museum outside Fodele village Byzantine church of Panagia on the roadside near the El Greco museum

So we crossed the road and climbed stairs through several terraces to an ancient stone house converted for use as a museum. It is thought to be the artist’s home, but no one knows that for certain. Regardless, a bronze bust of El Greco is mounted by the doorway.

Bronze bust of El Greco at the entrance of the museum. A bronze bust of El Greco stands near the entrance of the museum

Inside, we found a collection of reproductions of El Greco’s paintings hung with back-lighting, accentuating their own light and color. Visitors are permitted to take photos (which is not allowed in most museums). We have seen a few El Greco originals in Greece, but most are scattered across Europe in churches and museums. So this was an opportunity to see many of his paintings in one place.

The museum displayed artwork as large, backlighted transparencies El Greco’s painting are displayed as large, backlighted transparencies

El Greco attended the Agia Ekaterini (St. Catherine) school in Iraklion. Their art department focused on the Byzantine style of those times. It produced some of the best religious artists of the century. Unlike his schoolmates, who worked within a framework of religious art, El Greco began to develop his own style at an early age.

StCatherine El Greco studied art at Saint Catherine school in Iraklion

One of his early works, the icon “Dormition of the Virgin” in the Cathedral of the Dormition on the island of Syros, exhibits a Byzantine style. But this soon evolved into something new and different.

The Dormition is one of the most famous of the artist's early works The Dormition is one of the most famous of the artist’s early works

Around 1566 he went to Venice and studied under Renaissance masters, which is reflected in some of his early work. El Greco combined Titian’s use of color and Tintoretto’s compositions of people and use of space. It was a clear departure from Byzantine icons.

In his painting The Disrobing of Christ, el Greco shows the influence of his teachers in Venice and Rome. El Greco’s Disrobing of Christ shows the influence of Titian and Tintoretto

When he later moved to Rome, where he was further influenced by some of the great Italian artists and sculptors of the time. However, disappointed by his inability to earn a living in Rome, in 1577 he moved to Spain in search of a patron for his work.

His first Spanish commission was for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. The Assumption of the Virgin (now on display in Chicago) was based on that of his old master, Titian. But El Greco was already showing his own style. He used strange colors, groupings and proportions for the figures. Throughout the rest of his career these differences became more evident, though Byzantine influences  can still be seen through the mystic expressions and mood of his paintings.

The Burial of Count Orgaz is considered one of El Greco's finest masterpieces while living in Toledo The Burial of Count Orgaz is considered one of El Greco’s finest masterpieces

El Greco was well known and did have supporters in Toledo, but his style was unlike that of other artists of that time. He was forced to accept all kinds of commissions to pay off his debts, producing numerous portraits and religious images. He struggled for acceptance throughout his career, and he died trying to finish a commission in a hospital chapel.

For centuries after his death, El Greco was virtually ignored. Then, in the late 19th Century, he was rediscovered and studied by modern artists. Now he is considered an influential figure in the development of art in the 20th Century and into our time. This can be seen in the examples below.

Lady in Fur is a well known painting from his time in Toledo Lady in Fur is a well known El Greco painting from his time in Toledo Cézanne's "Lady in Fur" is the artist's tribute to El Greco Cézanne’s “Lady in Fur” is the artist’s tribute to El Greco’s work

Expressionism was a movement that used distortion to suggest mood and emotion, and El Greco was hailed as the forerunner of this style. In fact, he is considered a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism. He is seen by modern scholars as an artist so individual that he belongs to no conventional school.

"Vision of Saint John" is a classic example of El Greco's elongated figures and bold colors Vision of Saint John (The Fifth Seal) shows El Greco’s elongated figures and bold use of color Pablo Picasso's "The Ladies of Avignon" was inspired by El Greco's "Vision" above (note the women to the right of St. John) El Greco’s work inspired Picasso’s “Ladies of Avignon” (compare the women to the right of St. John)

This week the Prado, Madrid’s top art museum, unveiled a major exhibit exploring the influence  of El Greco on modern greats such as Édouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, and Pablo Picasso.

El Greco's composition is the source of the Expressionist painting on the right. Note the figures and even the colors used. El Greco’s composition is the source of the Expressionist painting on the right. Note that the positioning of the various figures and the colors used are very similar.

It has been more than 400 years since Domenikos Theotokopoulos lived, but the fame of El Greco has been rekindled and continues to grow. His artistic concepts (so strange to those who lived in his time) have inspired artists who live today. What was old has become new.



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