August 31, 2010

El Greco: A Defender of Byzantine Art

18 December 2008
Alpha Galileo

A new investigation could end many of the speculations about the works of El Greco and the man himself. A hand-written annotation to a book, similar to the glosses of Saint Emilianus, found in Spain in a copy of Lives of the most excellent architects, painters and sculptors by Giorgio Vasari, has led Nicos Hadjinicolau, a researcher from the Institute of Mediterranean Studies, to conclude that the artist – contrary to popular belief – was a defender of Byzantine art.

A new study by Greek art historian Nicos Hadjinicolau, who is a member of the Institute of Mediterranean Studies and Spain’s honorary consul in Crete, contradicts the widely-accepted hypothesis that views El Greco as a painter of Byzantine origin who assimilated and reflected the spirit of Castile after his arrival in Spain, and who was indifferent to the art of his country of origin. Part of this perception is based upon the 1908 book El Greco by Manuel Bartolomé Cossío.

Hadjinicolau says there are no other records of the painter’s critical opinion on the art form aside from the hand-written annotation attributed to him. “The passage I have studied is the exception to the rule, the only time that he makes a comment – and a spirited one – against Vasari,” the expert tells SINC.

A literal translation of the note attributed to the painter reads: “If [Vasari] really knew the nature of the Greek style of which he speaks, he would deal with it differently in what he says. He compares it with Giotto, but what Giotto did is simple in comparison, because the Greek style is full of ingenious difficulties.”

El Greco obtained the book from which this annotation was taken during Italian painter Federico Zuccaro’s visit to Toledo in May 1586. The text that the painter later handed over to his disciple Luis Tristán contained many annotations. How can it be definitively proved who wrote the note, however? Hadjinicolau says that “from a graphological point of view it is easy to compare these comments with El Greco’s signatures, and their authenticity is not in doubt, although the greatest discoveries in this field have been made by Xavier de Salas and Fernando Marías, chair at the Autónoma University of Madrid”.

There is, however, a difference between Marías’ and Hadjinicolau’s translations. What the Spaniard reads as “full of deceptive difficulties”, the Cretan translates as “full of ingenious difficulties”. It seems the original word was cut by the “book binder’s knife”.

The Greek expert says the difference between the sense of the two words is nothing more than a “systematic, artificial and erroneous ‘Spanishisation’”, while the most important aspect is that El Greco’s annotations “have a very oral component – he writes as if he were speaking, and we have never before seen him defend Byzantine art in such a vehement way”.

A second part to Hadjinicolau’s work, again preceded by Marías, focuses on another annotation attributed to El Greco and hand written on a copy of The Ten Books of Architecture by Vitruvio. In this note, Nicos Hadjinicolau says the painter “shows obvious pride in his ‘Greek fathers’, as he calls the ancients, but believes they had been outdone in modern times”.

The unique style of El Greco

Nearly everything that is known today about Doménikos Theotokópoulos is based upon interpretations. El Greco is considered one of the most important painters in the history of the Western world, and his career, which alternated between the Byzantine style of Crete and the mannerism of his latter years in Toledo, has been and still is the subject of much theorising by experts.

El Greco, despite embracing the spirit of the Counter Reformation in his painting, continued to include many elements stemming from Greek tradition (today known as Byzantine) during his final period in Toledo. In pictures such as El Expolio (‘The Disrobing of Christ’), the painter makes use of Byzantine iconography, although Hadjinicolau does not believe this was necessarily done consciously. “El Greco lived for 26 years in Crete. He had a studio and pupils. These things cannot be taken in isolation, and the iconographic elements from Byzantine culture that appear in Orgaz or El Expolio are independent of the defence we perceive in the annotation,” he says.

In spite of this, the researcher, who has written works such as El Greco: Byzantium and Italy and El Greco: Works in Spain admits that “it is clear, since this is the same person, that there is a link between what he says and what he paints”.

The Dormition of the Virgin (before 1567, tempera and gold on panel, 61,4 × 45 cm, Holy Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin, Hermoupolis, Syros) was probably created near the end of the artist's Cretan period. The painting combines post-Byzantine and Italian mannerist stylistic and iconographic elements.