Commentary by Hovak Najarian
The Pentecost, Oil on Canvas, c.1600, El Greco, 1541-1614
Domenikos Theotokopoulos, a Greek native of Crete, first studied Byzantine art with the intention of becoming an icon painter. Crete was a Venetian colony at that time and at about age twenty Domenikos went to Venice to study the paintings of masters such as Titian. Following his stay in Venice, he worked and taught in Rome and then moved to Spain where he became known simply as El Greco (The Greek). Spain became his home for the remainder of his life and by the time “The Pentecost” was painted for an Augustinian seminary in Madrid, his style was dramatically different from his earlier work. In this late style, El Greco’s paintings have elements of expressionism and often are described as having a sense of mystery.
In Acts of the Apostles an account is given of the day of Pentecost when the twelve apostles, as well as Mary and people of many nationalities were gathered in one place. All at once the sound of a mighty rushing wind came from heaven and filled the room: “And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:2-4)
El Greco’s “Pentecost,” (now in the Prado Museum, Madrid) was painted to be an altarpiece. Its height above floor level would place the seminarians at the lower part of the painting and they would see the subject matter increase in complexity as their gaze moved upward toward Mary, the apostles, and the plumes of fire. A dove at the top of the painting represents the Holy Spirit; its wings are spread and the light that surrounds it is radiating downward over the gathering. The two men in the foreground at the bottom of a short flight of stairs have lifted their arms and are leaning back slightly in order to look at the dove. Mary (dressed in red and blue) is seated at the center of the painting with apostles gathered around her; two other women are included in the painting. The woman at Mary’s left shoulder is thought to be Mary Magdalene and the fourth person from the left side may be Martha. [Acts states that when the apostles prayed, they did so with “…women and Mary.”] El Greco also included himself in this painting. His face is second from the right; he is the man with a white beard who seems to be in deep thought and is not looking up toward the dove.
Although the term, “Expressionism,” did not come into use until the twentieth century, it is an apt term for El Greco’s late paintings. Expressionism is the result of an artist’s effort to project emotional intensity and inner feelings into a work. The figures in “The Pentecost” are not posing for a formal group portrait. They are an animated informal mix of people who in body language and facial expression are reacting individually, and yet they are part of the collective experience. They are responding with awe and excited emotional involvement as they take part in this miraculous event.
Hovak Najarian © 2013