National Gallery Commemorates 400 Years Since Artist El Greco’s Death

With a name like Domenikos Theotokopoulos, it’s no wonder we know him better as El Greco.

An exhibition commemorating the 400th anniversary of the influential Spanish painter’s death opened at the National Gallery of Art Sunday.

With seven El Greco pieces in its arsenal, the National Gallery boasts the largest collection of his work outside Spain, according to His Excellency Ramón Gil-Casares, the Spanish ambassador to the U.S.

El Greco’s art was shaped by his early experiences as an icon-painter in Crete, Greece, and by his career as an oft-commissioned painter in Toledo, Spain, Gil-Casares said.

“Blending diverse influences – Byzantine, renaissance, and mannerist – [El Greco] developed a unique style that reflects the religious fervor of counter-reformation Spain,” he said.

“Beloved by many,” said gallery director Earl A. Powell III, El Greco’s paintings “reveal his spirituality with haunting intensity.”

Greco explores religious themes with “his most personal aesthetic,” Gil-Casares said.

Two pieces feature meetings of Jesus Christ and St. John the Baptist – one as fetuses in the wombs of the Virgin Mary and St. Elizabeth, respectively, and one as infant and toddler in their early lives.

El Greco also peppered his work with religious symbolism, a leftover from his icon-painting days.

One painting includes a lion and a lamb, another brings forth St. Peter’s set of keys. One portrays St. Jerome, who translated the Latin Vulgate Bible, as penitent, having used a rock “to beat his chest in repentance for his love of Classical learning.” Another presents St. Francis, founder of a monastic order, having a vision of Christ.

Arguably the most notable of the exhibit is El Greco’s only mythological work – a reimagining of a scene from Virgil’s “Aeneid” in which the gods send snakes to kill a Trojan that has spoken ill of the Greeks. El Greco, however, transported the scene to his adopted home city of Toledo, Spain, and replaced certain elements of the story with new, surprisingly surreal ones.

One undercurrent of all of these pieces is the bright, ethereal, stormy aesthetic quality of El Greco’s work. It is characterized by white-hot light sources (often light from some divine source), harsh brushstrokes and an almost surreal aesthetic brought on by deep spirituality.

Although El Greco’s work fell out of view soon after the artist’s death four hundred years ago, “his expressive style fascinated the early twentieth century American [art] collectors,” Powell said. This led to increased showing and appreciation from various artists, including Pablo Picasso, who based several paintings on El Greco’s work and style.

Still today, though, Powell said that audiences either love or hate El Greco’s work.

“People react,” he said. “You can’t be indifferent when you look at a painting by Greco.”

The exhibit at the National Gallery of Art opened Nov. 2 and runs until Feb. 16, 2015.

writersblocheadshots15Evan Berkowitz is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at

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