Seeing the known anew is the grace of every great exhibition. In front of The Adoration of the Magi, by Michael Damaskenos at “The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete,” at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York City, this belief strikes a particularly strong note. Painted in 1585-91, the sensation is of standing in front of the work of a contemporary young painter, fresh, a little cocky, defiantly regaling against the trend in a white box Chelsea gallery. A postmodern mash-up of Byzantine, Renaissance, Gothic and Mannerist styles, it appears so modern as to have been painted in this moment, yet sits entirely in its own time. With a central figure that seems to be a true portrait, a fashionable celebrity magus with courtly crew in tow, he stares frankly and directly out at us from dead center in the picture plane, the antithesis of the symbolic iconographic tradition. He seems to break through the “fourth wall,” caught by the camera’s eye and catching ours in a winking moment while his cast of characters goes on about their business, feverishly unaware.
Caught midway between symbolism and naturalism, the Byzantine mountains with their iconic inverse perspective lean gleefully over his head while a horse rears his buttocks in Renaissance naturalist perspective. To the left of the picture plane Mary peers out from a barely symbolist past while the Magi seem to have arrived fresh from the busy future. Dense and active, the compressed byzantine space is like a crowded multi-century, multicultural house party, figures leaning, gesticulating, conversing in Renaissance abandon while byzantine angels hover overhead, piously covering their hands. Across from these heavenly beings, scantily clad futuristic angels swoop an unfurling drapery over a building, reference to the traditional iconic symbol of an interior event, before our eyes heralding a new era. The congruous montaging of elements in the same space while keeping each style autonomous feels intensely modern.
Near the Damaskenos, a triptych by George Klontzas, features writhing figures packed in a dense world striving for a dark vision reminiscent of van Eyk’s heaven and hell, yet despite itself bursting with riotous life. The swirling emotional intensity of the scenes reveals its Mannerist style, with clear appropriations from multiple western sources, including the representation of Hell, by Domenico Campagnolo, apparently appropriated nearly in its entirety. The one shame is the possibly integral original frame that was carved away, a nineteenth century replacement added. Lovely in its own right, I cannot help but crave the original, although the frame keeps good company with the painting’s collaged postmodern quality.
The exhibition offers us a sumptuous exploration of nearly 50 Cretan icon paintings, their introduction to and integration with western styles of painting, and the resulting birth of a great modern master, Domenikos Theotokopoulos, known as El Greco – the Greek. Icons as an art form are always intriguing, visually compelling, seeming to have a deeper and larger story to tell, one of tradition, meditation and prayer, liturgy and pure rapturous beauty contained in a strictly structured contemplative format. This exhibition offers a pinpointed twist in the narrative of icons; witness to the lineage of El Greco evolving lavishly in front of our eyes.
In 1541 when El Greco was born, Crete was an international late Byzantine Center, a Venetian territory since 1211, multicultural and religiously diverse. Artists working in the Byzantine style were familiar with Late Gothic, Renaissance and Mannerist work, especially through the distribution of prints of artists such as Giovanni Bellini, Raphel, Titian and Parmagiannino. Artists moved between Constantinople, Crete and Venice, and the Byzantine style incorporated strong Italian elements. El Greco was a colleague of Klontzas and Damaskenos, the three were notable Cretan artists of their time who traveled to Venice, and all incorporated Italian styles while somehow retaining their Byzantine heredity. They evolved in a Byzantine environment as talented iconographers, and each burst that shell with a vengeance in their own way. El Greco left its structure most completely, while never abandoning his iconic roots entirely.
The tradition of icons, (from Greek εἰκών eikōn “image”), form an important aspect of Orthodox liturgy. A part of the practice of prayer, icons are a highly symbolic form, a sign or likeness that stands in for another. The stylized character of the forms, often based on a strict geometric structure, are specifically de-naturalized, a theological way of depicting the divine rather than human aspect of the narrative. Icons are symbols of holy events, they point the way towards rather than mimic. Space is compressed, gold backgrounds announce heavenly events, landscapes are geometric, perspective is inverted and multiple, expressing a spiritual vision rather than worldly. Figures are deliberately abstracted, flattened so as to not appear entirely “embodied.” Referencing the ancient ban on graven images in the monotheistic faiths, to depict holy events in naturalistic form would be heretical, for you cannot depict that which you cannot see. A great debate in Christianity, the birth of Jesus to a human woman would eventually justify the depiction of images in the Roman and Orthodox traditions. Controversial even today in some faiths and regions, Buddhas were only recently destroyed for the likes of this- in the Renaissance West the ban became loose and then lost completely, as Giotto depicts Christ walking recognizably along his contemporary streets of Italy. God is crashed to earth, and man becomes his likeness; mimesis takes hold and naturalistic forms become commonplace. Yet Orthodox icons maintained an essentially spiritual visual structure, often even through today.
The exhibition offers astonishing examples of the tradition. Gems abound, each commanding attention no matter how humble. The extraordinary condition of many belie their age, these paintings have been well looked after. The earliest work of Christ Pantocrater, from the last quarter of the 14th century, shows him solemnly peering out in knowing mercy; the Hodigritia icon of Mary – she who shows the way- from around the same time, points toward the child in her arms in a motion of foreshadow. Saint Theodore Tiro stands large and triumphant over a slain green dragon, his courtly dress gleaming in Byzantine splendor while the hand of God offers blessings from above. The meeting of East and West is more apparent in some, as in Christ and the Woman of Samaria, where Italian buildings protect the iconic foreground narrative, or in a Pieta from around 1500, probably by Nikolas Tzafouris, which is a close copy of Giovanni Bellini and incorporates oil in a tempera grassa technique. Then there is the ever odd Virgin Lactans, mid to late 15th century, her tiny breast popping right out of her left shoulder. The child does not seem to mind.
No tradition, ban or not, is hard and fast, and variations, interpretations, and outright breaks appear throughout history. This exhibition gives exceptional examples of pure forms of Byzantine icons, as well as a kind of marrying, not quite a blending but a joining together of a Byzantine and Western understanding of the depictions of holy images. The result is El Greco, who appears as modern as painting can be. As one who has observed closely and studied hard the traditions of icons, this show was revelatory in its tightly constructed argument for Cretan icons and the unfolding of a modern master. To approach El Greco’s, Coronation of the Virgin, 1603-5, as the culmination of this narrative is to witness a revolution happening, yet one that does not seem to reject its forbearers but rather holds them within, while pushing paint into completely new places. I am always astonished at its modernity when standing in front of an El Greco painting, considering when he painted. His paintings persuade me that almost nothing that came after in painting was ever more modern in its expression in paint. Titian, Tintoretto, the masters who influenced El Greco in Venice, seem more fixed in their time somehow, firmly rooted in their place, while El Greco leaps backward and forward simultaneously, conflating time and place, body and spirit, East and West.
“The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete,” on view through February 27, at the Onassis Center, does justice to these narratives, illuminating the themes of icon painting and their role in the life of El Greco as he ushers in modernity. We witness that precipice here, and can literally feel the excitement of the painters’ explorations. Accomplishing what only such notable exhibitions can, we drink in the work and see it anew. The Onassis Center has connected this subject to worlds beyond, and left me hungry for much more.
by Patricia Miranda, Contributing Writer
The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete,” at the Onassis Cultural Center, New York City.
On view through February 27