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.
Mark 10:46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.
Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Domenikos Theotokopoulos, of Greek descent, was born on the island of Crete at a time when it was a Venetian colony. He began his career as an icon painter but while a young man he went to Venice to study painting with Titian, one of the great masters of the sixteenth century. He then moved to Rome, opened a workshop, and became familiar with the work of artists associated with the Renaissance and Mannerism. Next on his itinerary was Madrid where he hoped to work at the Spanish court. The king did not like his work, however, and after receiving a commission for a group of paintings at a church in Toledo, he decided to stay there and make it his home. In Spain, he became known simply as The Greek – “El Greco.”
While in Italy, El Greco painted three versions of Christ Healing the Blind; the one shown above was his last one. It has a few unfinished areas and was taken with him to Spain – perhaps to finish it there. At that time he was influenced by the artists of Venice and, inasmuch as this painting was not quite complete and not signed, historians first attributed it to two highly regarded Venetian painters. It was thought to be a Tintoretto and later, the work of Veronese. In 1958 it was determined to be the work of El Greco.
This painting is not from a specific biblical text but is a synthesis of several accounts of Christ healing the blind. The man pointing upward at the far left has had his sight restored and is telling about the experience to the people gathered. Another man is kneeling and his eyes are being touched by Christ. In El Greco’s first painting of this subject, he placed a dog in the central foreground sniffing the belongings of the man being healed. That space was left empty in the second version but in this, his third interpretation, the central foreground has been given over to a man and woman witnessing the miracle and gesturing in awe. Because of a likeness between the man in the foreground and the man being healed, it has been suggested the two figures in the foreground are the blind man’s parents. The men grouped together at the far right of the painting are believed to be Pharisees airing their criticism because the healing was carried out on the Sabbath.
El Greco’s greatest success and the development of his artistic style came during his years in Spain. Although he lived in Toledo until the time of his death, he remained emotionally close to his Greek heritage. When adding his signature to a painting, he always signed his given name in Greek and sometimes followed with, “from Crete.”
El Greco’s life and work spans the time between Mannerism and the Baroque period. After the Venetian influence diminished, his style became so distinctive and personal that it defies categorization. His work is now regarded to be an early manifestation of “expressionism.”
Elongated figures are a characteristic of El Greco’s work in Spain. It has been suggested astigmatism was the cause. That is inaccurate. If average sized figures looked elongated to him, he would see the figures elongated in his paintings as well, yet to us, they would appear to be average in size.