Eve Tushnet recently visited an exhibition of El Greco’s paintings at the National Gallery of Art. She especially notices the 16th century painter’s striking religious vision, in which “tenderness, penitence, and estrangement comprise the human condition”:
The earliest work here is Christ Cleansing the Temple (ca. 1570). The wall caption notes that this was a popular subject for Roman Catholic painters during the Counter-Reformation. To Catholic artists, the church bore responsibility for the reaction its ministers’ sins and distortions had provoked, and the artists didn’t shy away from comparing their own church to the money-grubbing, Pharisaical religion confronted by Jesus. El Greco’s version of this scene is derivative and somewhat confused, but hints of his sensibility emerge: that characteristic blue-and-claret color scheme in Christ’s robes, the unearthly glow of the flesh.
Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata [seen above] is surprisingly restrained. It’s another relatively early piece, from 1585-90, and although it’s a dramatic image, in which the saint is enraptured by his vision of the cross, there’s a quiet solitude to this painting. It doesn’t feel the need to shout. The tones are soft blacks and grays. The stigmata themselves are small: A dark red dot is visible on the big vein on the back of Francis’s left hand, as if an IV needle had been inserted there by a well-trained nurse. El Greco’s painting, in which flesh reveals that the crucifixion underlies all everyday experience, is not tormented. The saint’s expression speaks more of acceptance than agony or ecstasy. The cross itself is sketchy, blurred, in a frame of deep, black, rolling clouds. El Greco’s saints often have this gentleness to them.