Cover image for Art and the Religious Image in El Greco’s Italy By Andrew R. Casper

Art and the Religious Image in El Greco’s Italy

Andrew R. Casper


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ISBN: 978-0-271-06054-5

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236 pages
8" × 10"
34 color/50 b&w illustrations

Art and the Religious Image in El Greco’s Italy

Andrew R. Casper

“Andrew R. Casper’s Art and the Religious Image in El Greco’s Italy makes an important contribution to the growing body of scholarship on El Greco, one of the most original and, often, least understood artists of the late Renaissance. In a probing and illuminating fashion, Casper reveals the ways in which El Greco’s encounter with both Counter-Reformation theological ideas and Venetian and Roman art and art theory enabled him to transform himself from a provincial painter of icons in the Byzantine manner to a truly modern painter of devotional images. The El Greco we encounter here is a highly self-conscious, ambitious, and learned painter who, by virtue of his ‘Byzantine way of thinking,’ reconciled aesthetic concerns with contemporary attitudes toward sacred images in the form of what Casper brilliantly terms ‘artful icons.’”


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Art and the Religious Image in El Greco’s Italy is the first book-length examination of the early career of one of the early modern period’s most notoriously misunderstood figures. Born around 1541, Domenikos Theotokopoulos began his career as an icon painter on the island of Crete. He is best known, under the name “El Greco,” for the works he created while in Spain, paintings that have provoked both rapt admiration and scornful disapproval since his death in 1614. But the nearly ten years he spent in Venice and Rome, from 1567 to 1576, have remained underexplored until now. Andrew Casper’s examination of this period allows us to gain a proper understanding of El Greco’s entire career and reveals much about the tumultuous environment for religious painting after the Council of Trent.

Art and the Religious Image in El Greco’s Italy is a new book in the Art History Publication Initiative (AHPI), a collaborative grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Thanks to the AHPI grant, this book will be available in popular e-book formats.

“Andrew R. Casper’s Art and the Religious Image in El Greco’s Italy makes an important contribution to the growing body of scholarship on El Greco, one of the most original and, often, least understood artists of the late Renaissance. In a probing and illuminating fashion, Casper reveals the ways in which El Greco’s encounter with both Counter-Reformation theological ideas and Venetian and Roman art and art theory enabled him to transform himself from a provincial painter of icons in the Byzantine manner to a truly modern painter of devotional images. The El Greco we encounter here is a highly self-conscious, ambitious, and learned painter who, by virtue of his ‘Byzantine way of thinking,’ reconciled aesthetic concerns with contemporary attitudes toward sacred images in the form of what Casper brilliantly terms ‘artful icons.’”
“Professor Andrew Casper’s densely illustrated essay on the ‘artful icon’ is an insightful study of the nine years that the philosophising painter Domenico Theotocopolo spent in Italy (1567–76), on his way from his native Crete to Spain, where he lived and worked in Toledo until his death in 1614. . . . This volume is a substantial contribution to understanding how an icon-writer from the Greek Orthodox world came to accommodate himself to the post-Tridentine Roman Catholic society of Italy.”

Andrew R. Casper is Assistant Professor of Art History at Miami University.


List of Illustrations



1 The Divinity of Painting

2 The Devotional Image

3 Synthesis as Artistic Ideal

4 The Theatrics of the Counter-Reformation Narrative

5 The Artist as Antiquarian in Christian Rome

6 From Icon to Altarpiece





The seventeenth-century poet and preacher Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino summarized the life of the painter commonly known as El Greco (The Greek) by writing, “Crete gave him life and his paintbrushes / Toledo [Spain] gave him a better country, where he began / with his death, to attain eternity.” This essential biographical data is accurate. Born around the year 1541, Domenikos Theotokopoulos started his career as an icon painter on the island of Crete. He was later better known as Dominico Greco, and today simply as El Greco, but these monikers signify the same émigré to Spain whose legacy is preserved in stirring paintings that have provoked both rapt admiration and scornful disapproval since his death in 1614.

However, Paravicino’s abridged account of the life of this Greek-born “Spanish” painter fails to acknowledge any formative influence from the artist’s stay in Italy from 1567 to 1576—a time and place that witnessed great consternation concerning the proper form and function of sacred art. Indeed, the stylistic discrepancies between the Dormition of the Virgin painted in Crete around 1565 (fig. 1) and the Assumption of the Virgin completed in 1577 for the high altar of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo (fig. 2)—paintings that frame El Greco’s nine-year sojourn in Venice and Rome—prove that the artist’s Italian phase was more pivotal than what Paravicino’s omission of it might suggest. Both paintings bear similar signatures: “[Δ]ΟΜΗΝΙΚΟC ΘΕΟΤΟΚΌΠΟΥΛΟC Ο ΔΕΙΞΑC” (Domenikos Theotokopoulos displayed it) on the Dormition and the slightly more informative “δομήνικος θεοτοκόπουλος κρής ό δείξας α φ ο ζ” (Domenikos Theotokopoulos of Crete displayed it, 1577) on the later altarpiece. However, without these declarations of creative agency, few would likely recognize that the same hand produced these dissonant works within only a dozen years. The earlier icon is typical of the kind of painting in which El Greco had received extensive training in Crete. Resplendent in its use of gold, the composition follows a standard Byzantine formula to depict Mary’s death and the transitus of her soul into heaven. Its intimate size would have made it suitable for the use of a single viewer meditating on this subject of deep theological and spiritual significance. By comparison, the soaring Assumption of the Virgin, part of the painter’s first commission in Spain, is enormous. As the main panel of a massive altar retablo, this painting addressed a larger public audience in a liturgical setting. Stylistically it owes much to the practices and techniques employed by painters in Venice and Rome that evidently remained fresh in the artist’s mind after having spent nearly a decade in Italy. But what really happened after El Greco’s visualization of Mary’s Dormition that inspired him to paint the Assumption so differently just a short time later? More important, what does this shift in artistic practice indicate about the environment in which he worked in the intervening period and its impact on his attitudes regarding the images he made?

Answering these questions requires a fresh look at an artist whose life achievements resist his being assigned a single cultural identity. El Greco’s itinerancy has persuaded many to cast him as an exotic foreigner working on the fringes of local artistic establishments at every stage of his career. His stay in Venice and Rome frequently stands as an anomalous footnote to his more famous Spanish period or is ignored altogether. When El Greco’s Italian period is recognized, it is too often subjected to the same unsubstantiated biographical embellishments that since the nineteenth century have cast him as a victim of debilitating ophthalmological conditions, an eccentric mystic, and a protomodernist visionary.

This book frames early El Greco differently. I reveal that El Greco was far more conventional than what is normally said about him. He consciously broadened his artistic repertoire from the production of post-Byzantine icons to local conventions of Italian painting in order to respond calculatedly and productively to contemporary preoccupations about the proper form and function of sacred imagery. The only thing unusual about him was the astonishing brevity in which he underwent a drastic stylistic metamorphosis as part of his reformulation of the religious image. Only three years after arriving in Venice in 1567 as a Cretan icon painter, he went to Rome having mastered Venetian color. In 1576 he went to Spain as an eager student—and informed critic—of Michelangelo. The paintings from this period exhibit a range of sixteenth-century Italian artistic trends, including an extensive reliance on prints for compositional inspiration, a thoughtful implementation of Venetian art theory in his working practice, a studious application of perspective for formal and symbolic effects, and an informed use of ancient architecture for the settings of religious narratives. Recognizing these characteristics, not only augments our understanding of El Greco’s early artistic activities, but also invites speculation on how some of the most formative artistic discussions of his time helped shape his output and his conception of how his paintings functioned as religious images in late sixteenth-century Italy.

Any analysis of El Greco’s early career must overlay the unusual itinerary that took him from Crete to Spain via Venice and Rome within a span of only ten years. Thanks to its position as a trading crossroads, Crete and its capital, Candia (today Heraklion), was a major center for the exportation of icons throughout the Mediterranean. Moreover, the cosmopolitan culture that nurtured El Greco’s first artistic activities fostered a predisposition to follow Italian models, resulting in a distinct pictorial hybridity. The widespread dissemination of Italian art provided access to these sources. His frequent borrowings from prints show how extensively he relied on this medium in particular. The icon St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child (see fig. 4 in chapter 1) models the Evangelist after a figure in Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving of Raphael’s Last Supper drawing. The angel descending to crown the saint with laurel originates in a print by Giovanni Battista d’Angeli (del Moro) after a drawing by Bernardino Campi titled Victory Crowning the Roman Vestal Tucia. The candlestick in the foreground of the Dormition of the Virgin derives from prints by Marcantonio Raimondi and Enea Vico.

The most eclectic departure from Byzantine models among El Greco’s Cretan works is found in the Adoration of the Magi (fig. 3). This icon exhibits a looser application of paint, a limited use of gold, and a more spacious background than in the artist’s other works. The mannered pose of the Virgin, with her legs crossed as she leans forward to present the Christ child to the retinue of adoring Magi, comes from an engraving titled the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine by Marco d’Angeli after Andrea Schiavone. The soldier appearing on the right with his back turned outward originates in Parmigianino’s Resurrection etching. The figure removing his crown may come from an engraving by Giovanni Battista Franco. The king on the left holding a gold urn and paten has its origins in Correggio’s Adoration of the Magi at the Brera in Milan, which also appeared in prints. The architectural setting featuring ruined buildings has northern origins, coming from a print titled Balaam and the Angel by Dirck Volkertsz. Coornhert after Maerten van Heemskerck.

While this persistent lure of Italy was probably what brought El Greco to Venice in 1567, the exact circumstances of his move are unclear. What we do know is recorded in a handful of documents. On June 6, 1566, he served as a legal witness in Candia as a “master painter,” indicating that he left the island as a fully trained iconographer. Two other documents—from December 26 and 27, 1566—indicate that El Greco prepared for his journey by auctioning “un quadro della Passione del nostro Signor Giesu Christo, dorato”—putting 1566 as the terminus post quem for the artist’s arrival in Venice. Yet the only known document for his stay in Venice is a letter dated August 18, 1568, referencing drawings he was supposed to send to the cartographer Giorgio Sideris Calapodas.

By the time El Greco arrived in Venice in 1567, the city’s Cretan population had become the largest ethnic minority in Italy. The community’s most prosperous period centered around the construction of San Giorgio dei Greci from 1539 to 1573, a period in which many Greek artists worked for both Venetian and Cretan clients. El Greco’s arrival coincided with an unprecedented wave of immigrant artists from Crete. The most successful was Michael Damaskinos, who had already proven to be an accomplished artist in Candia before his first stint in Venice from 1566 to 1569. After a short interlude in Messina, Damaskinos returned to Venice in 1574 and stayed until 1582 or 1583 to work on the iconostasis and the sancta sanctorum at San Giorgio dei Greci.

El Greco’s career path diverged markedly from that of his peers. Though he never lost sight of his Cretan origins—he never signed a painting in any language but Greek and often appended his name with the declarative “of Crete”—he distanced himself from the Greek community in Venice and does not appear to have been bothered by a lack of one in Rome. Neither did El Greco come to Italy to work as a madonnero as was once thought. Twentieth-century scholars haphazardly applied this derogatory label to artists of the so-called Creto-Venetian school who produced cheap and stylistically hybrid panels of the Madonna and other religious subjects for an unsophisticated and low-paying clientele. These immigrant artists were, in the words of Harold Wethey, “totally unskilled, untutored, and ignorant of the very rudiments of good painting.” Few today would challenge his declaration that “the attempt to transform the young El Greco into a tenth-rate vendor of small religious panels is the most regrettable development in the critical history of the artist’s career.”

Instead, El Greco’s Italian paintings reveal a more accomplished study after the styles and techniques of Italian masters than what we see in other Cretan painters. His short stay in Venice in the late 1560s exposed him to artists who helped shape his early development. A letter from Giulio Clovio dated November 16, 1570, introduced El Greco to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese as a “young discepolo of Titian from Candia” recently arrived in Rome. It is unclear if “disciple” signifies an established formal relationship or if the young artist merely admired and studied Titian’s works on his own. Regardless, the elder master’s influence on the young El Greco was undeniably strong.

This letter is also one of the few documents recording El Greco’s activities in Rome, a destination where, as Giorgio Vasari described, many artists of the highest ambition felt the urge to visit in order to study works by the great masters. Clovio, a miniaturist and long-time servant of the cardinal, asked that El Greco be granted a room in the Farnese Palace until he could find suitable housing elsewhere. Though El Greco was already in the city (Clovio’s letter mentioned a self-portrait that had already dazzled all the artists of Rome), the painter must have settled in the palace by December 1570. His career might have ended up differently had his stay there not come to an abrupt end. A letter El Greco wrote to the cardinal on July 6, 1572, expresses remorse for a hasty dismissal from the court only a little more than a year and a half after his introduction.

El Greco’s loss of a potential patron in Alessandro Farnese may have expedited the artist’s decision to join the painters’ guild in Rome. The registry records that on September 18, 1572, just two months after El Greco’s release from the Farnese household, he paid the two scudi fee for admission. Neither the extent nor the nature of El Greco’s involvement is very clear. Confusion stems from the fact that when the guild documents were first published it was said that he registered as a “pittore a carte.” This would seem to classify him as a painter of miniatures, suggesting a continuing guidance under the miniaturist Clovio. However, the term comes from a seventeenth-century index of all individuals registered between 1535 and 1653 and therefore might not be the language used at the time that El Greco became a member. The earlier records categorize each member as pittore (painter), ricamatore (embroiderer), banderaio (banner maker), miniatore (miniaturist or illuminator), or battiloro (gold beater)—raising the question of why, if El Greco was a miniaturist, he was listed in the 1572 entry as a pittore and not miniatore.

El Greco’s admittance into the guild so soon after his departure from the Farnese court is indicative of an unwavering determination to stay in Rome. But this event initiates the most contentious period of the artist’s entire career. His precise whereabouts are unknown from the time he entered the guild until at least October 21, 1576, when he reportedly appealed for financial aid from the Royal Almoner in Madrid. Speculation that the artist traveled elsewhere in Italy after 1572, especially the engaging theory that he returned to Venice for a few years before heading off to Spain, has been endorsed by a small but vociferous collection of scholars for much of the twentieth century. Jens Ferdinand Willumsen pointed out that Giovanni Baglione’s Le vite de’ pittori scultori et architetti dal pontificato di Gregorio XIII del 1572 in fino a’tempi di papa Urbano Ottavo nel 1642, an exhaustive list of artists working in Rome after 1572, does not include Domenikos Theotokopoulos. Unfortunately, no existing documentation can confirm that the artist went anywhere else. In fact, El Greco was likely still in Rome when he painted and signed a portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi in 1575.

The reasons for El Greco’s decision to go to Spain are also a subject of much speculation. Giulio Mancini alleged that El Greco made disparaging comments regarding Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, offering to rip the fresco to the ground and do another that was better and more modest. This libel supposedly drew the ire of El Greco’s peers, whereupon he fled Rome to seek the patronage of Philip II in Spain. Though some have taken Mancini’s anecdote as evidence for the driving force behind El Greco’s departure, it is unlikely that condemnation of Michelangelo could have invited such repercussions. The Last Judgment was subjected to widespread ridicule that culminated in Pius IV’s demand that Daniele da Volterra clothe Michelangelo’s writhing nudes in fresco a secco britches. Besides, El Greco’s comments would hardly have been unique or original. Vicious invectives against Michelangelo’s work were common, as his paintings became scapegoats for the formal offenses committed by religious painters in this period of heightened vigilance. Pietro Aretino’s notorious outrage got expanded in Ludovico Dolce’s Dialogo della pittura of 1557. In 1564 the theologian Giovanni Andrea Gilio da Fabriano issued a treatise criticizing the fresco’s fullest range of indecorous improprieties.

Since it is unlikely that an unflattering appraisal of Michelangelo’s painting could have forced El Greco out of Rome, a more plausible premise for traveling to Spain was the promise of work. While Venice and Rome nourished El Greco’s artistic development, they did not provide an abundance of employment opportunities that would have allowed him to remain in Italy. For this reason, the artist set out in search of opportunities to advance professionally elsewhere, even if that meant going abroad for the second time in his young career. By 1577 El Greco signed contracts for the Espolio at the sacristy altar of the Toledo cathedral and the high altar retablo at Santo Domingo el Antiguo. He never stepped foot in Italy again.

The preceding biographical sketch serves as a backdrop for the largely nonbiographical aims of this book. My focus on early El Greco, to the exclusion of his more famous career in Spain, has two interrelated goals. First, it positions his time in Venice and Rome as formative and profitable to his artistic development. While his earliest paintings offer insights into his unique pictorial mind, they also aggregate key trends and ideas that shaped artistic production in the second half of the sixteenth century. Of course, El Greco’s Spanish works are no less valuable in that regard; but his art underwent such drastic changes in style, patronage, and even audience that attempts to find continuity across his career risk missing the meaningful nuances of this underexplored early phase that only a focused examination can provide.

Hence this book’s second, more expansive aim: to use El Greco’s early career as a vantage point for reevaluating the religious image in sixteenth-century Italy. I draw attention to the ties between El Greco’s art and the environment in which he worked by showing how he generated new ways of conceiving sacred imagery in response to the burgeoning need to reconcile artistic achievement with ever-evolving concerns for the aims of Christian art. It is by looking with greater sensitivity to the functional and religious—not just artistic—aspects of El Greco’s productivity in Italy that we can appreciate the connections between this misunderstood artist’s religious environment and the artistic output of his early career.

El Greco’s early career has figured very little in recent scholarly attempts to evaluate properly the mutual dependence of “art” and the “religious image” in the second half of the sixteenth century. For example, Marcia Hall’s The Sacred Image in the Age of Art highlights tensions between upholding the religious function of images promulgated by the twenty-fifth session of the Council of Trent in 1563 and maintaining the value of artistic virtuosity, as sanctioned by the otherwise unrelated founding of the Accademia del Disegno in Florence that same year. The author focuses on the efforts of select artists—El Greco included—to respond to ecclesiastical requirements that religious art foster devotion, while also asserting their creative autonomy. But the chapter on El Greco further perpetuates scholarly bias against his earlier phases by discussing his output in Spain—a profile made all the more curious by Hall’s otherwise Italocentric focus. Her book thus leaves the artist’s much more pointed pictorial statements on religious imagery, as well as the contextual nuances that shaped his artistic practice and philosophy in Italy, largely unexamined.

El Greco’s compositional and stylistic techniques articulate uniquely the interdependence of art and devotion in a way that broad period generalizations cannot fully accommodate. Federico Zeri highlights Scipione Pulzone’s approach to reforming the visual arts toward a more devotionally affective function through the formulation of a timeless and emphatically pious style. In one masterful and more recent case study of how a single artist negotiated this terrain, Stuart Lingo shows that Federico Barocci crafted paintings that were both artistically alluring and spiritually affective. The nature of Barocci’s production says as much about his unique artistic inclinations as it does the environment in which he worked. Indeed, the artists El Greco admired most operated similarly. Una Roman D’Elia shows how Titian used literary formulae to shape his religious works into distinct genres in accordance with new concerns over decorum and propriety then emerging in Venice. Alexander Nagel explores Michelangelo’s lifelong efforts to devise images of the dead Christ that embraced the formal and functional legacy of cult images in a way consistent with his ideas of artistic and spiritual reform cultivated before the Council of Trent’s decree on images. The artists of the Carracci family, by contrast, instituted a response from outside the Roman (or Venetian) center(s). Charles Dempsey has shown that these artists, influenced by their own north Italian sensibilities, advocated a reform of painting that denied Michelangelo’s manner in favor of one that brought back the ideas of the “devout style” cultivated by Francesco Francia and Pietro Perugino but criticized by Vasari as backward and provincial. In each of these cases the artist comes up with his own solutions to the challenge of creating sacred images. A similar discussion of El Greco, hitherto lacking, ought to allow for an examination tailored to the contours of his own experience and his own artistic inclinations in this time and place.

The premise of this book is that El Greco’s unique artistic pedigree distills key components of the controversy over religious images that do not reveal themselves as forcefully when examined through works by other, even more renowned Italian artists. He entered the fray of Counter-Reformation Italy from an unusual yet advantageous perspective. He arrived a mere four years after the end of the Council of Trent from a place that was peripheral to the main focus of discussion. Yet while Crete’s retrospective, post-Byzantine artistic manner avoided the scrutiny that befell artists on mainland Italy, nobody has examined these issues from the vantage of an icon painter in Italy whose works contribute much to our understanding of the development of the religious image. In fact, the Council of Trent’s decree hardly went unnoticed by Orthodox communities. Cretan portrayals of the Triumph of Orthodoxy conflate the Catholic reaffirmation of images with the Second Council of Nicaea’s support for icons in 787 and the Byzantine defeat of iconoclasm in 843. Consequently, El Greco’s earliest training inflected a Byzantine way of thinking about sacred images that was not altogether distinct from what was being promoted in Italy. But this also makes his drastic artistic transformation, striving to match the achievements of Titian, Michelangelo, and other artists he admired, all the more puzzling.

El Greco’s stylistic transition does indeed prove especially difficult to reconcile against this backdrop. But few studies that confront his formal development consider the functional value of his works with respect to sixteenth-century preoccupations with sacred imagery. Scholars too often distort El Greco’s primary intentions by emphasizing that the artist disavowed his Greek heritage in order to become a full-fledged European virtuoso. Such treatments risk drawing correlative assumptions about the purpose of his paintings by suggesting that El Greco devoted himself to artistic concerns above all else and that his stylistic deviations from a Byzantine norm signal a typological transformation that both he and his art underwent. As a result, his decision to abandon his Cretan style can too easily be seen as a willing rejection of the devotional purpose attached to his Byzantine-style paintings; no longer can he appropriately be called an icon painter once he picks up a brush in Venice and Rome because his images cease to look the part.

While it is undeniable that El Greco developed a more Italianized manner to the detriment of his former Byzantine one, we should not assume that he intended to alter the function of the things he made. The works he produced in Venice, Rome, and beyond are still predominantly religious in nature. Moreover, this book shows that the types, formats, and subjects he painted exemplify the range of conceptual problems that he confronted when seeking ways to ensure that sacred works of art served devotional ends. We might then ask, if El Greco arrived in Venice as an icon painter, did he ever stop painting them?

An answer requires devoting unprecedented attention to the artist’s early career alongside a careful examination of the far bigger question of what an icon is. While a direct derivative of the Greek eikon was not commonly used in this time, conceptions of the religious image nevertheless derive from traditional icon theory. The Council of Trent advised artists to adhere to basic principles regarding decorum and religious devotion—namely, to faithfully depict sacred subjects that inspire piety. In so doing the council repeated the standard definition of the icon by stipulating that “the honor which is shown to [images] is referred to the prototype which they represent.” Furthermore, Ludovico Dolce’s Dialogo della pittura (1557) described religious images as visual aids that are “not only, as the saying goes, the books of the ignorant, but [that] also (like stimuli of a highly agreeable kind) awaken understanding to their devotions—lifting both the former and the latter into contemplating the subject they represent.” The referential task of the sacred image to signify its prototype gets aligned with its power to be emotionally affective. Therefore, the sixteenth-century icon was regarded as both a transparent image that draws attention to the prototype represented and a visual aid that invites devotional engagement with it.

El Greco was not unique in formatting his paintings to ensure this referential and devotional goal. Consequently, a broader aim of this book is to challenge scholarly examinations of early-modern religious art that still see explicit devotional engagement as a feature germane to a medieval, not Renaissance, experience of images. The religious function of an image is too often seen to be at odds with the recognition of its status as a work of art. For example, Hans Belting’s Likeness and Presence notoriously asserts that the Renaissance “era of art” and its insistence on virtuosic artistry signals the demise of the cult image. But I suggest that this antithesis might miss the frequent inextricability of artistic self-awareness and religious purpose—an alignment of form and function that Belting indeed regarded as intrinsic to some medieval devotional images. Why should the art of sixteenth-century Italy be any different?

As David Freedberg remarked, “To separate the aura of art from the aura of images is to tell only half a story.” El Greco’s paintings further invalidate dichotomies of “art” and “image” because of his unique stylistic transformation, not despite it. El Greco lived at a time when the correlation between style and function allowed artists to tailor their images to the tastes and preferences of their viewers. The Tridentine reemphasis on the efficacy of sacred art laid the groundwork for all religious works to function in the ways associated with icons as long as the venerating public, collectively or individually, treated them as such. Though there was some understanding of a preference for simpler, more “medieval” compositions, the vagueness of the Council of Trent’s decree prevented any unified stylistic response. As a result, we cannot simply recognize an icon when we see one. Instead, “iconicity” is determined not by a single prescribed style but rather by an image’s capacity in the mind of the beholder to function as a devotional aid in the terms conveyed by the Councils of Nicaea and Trent: it must provide access to the prototype portrayed and not in itself be regarded as an object of reverence. Artistic embellishments, if done well, could make positive contributions to an image’s devotional goal.

It is in seeking a definition of the icon that resists contradicting the artificial conditions of the work of art that we realize the potential for any image to act as an icon because it is a work of art. Consequently, this book shows how El Greco’s early body of work articulates what I call the “artful icon.” This category combines traditional notions of the icon as a devotional image with the inherent valorization of aesthetic achievement in the second half of the sixteenth century (fully described in chapter 1).

One unique measure of the artful icon is the treatment of paintings by known masters as works that attract an allure similar to that garnered by anonymously crafted miracle-working icons. Raphael’s Spasimo di Sicilia was nearly lost at sea when the ship transporting it to Palermo sank in a storm. Only through allegedly divine intervention did the picture survive the wreckage and wash ashore near Genoa. Vasari reported in the 1568 edition of Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori that “it was found to be a divine work and proved to be uninjured . . . for even the fury of the winds and the sea respected the beauty of such a painting.” Vasari asserted the inherent sanctity (and indestructibility) of Raphael’s art by grafting the older legend of the Virgin Annunciate of Trapani onto its burgeoning reputation as a cult image. The point is not so much whether Vasari’s account is journalistically reliable but rather that he found Raphael’s artistic achievement worthy of receiving a rhetorical flourish that highlights its ability to attract divine attention. Importantly, Vasari’s treatment of this work of art–cum–miraculous image reflects the prevailing attitudes of his own time, decades removed from the time of its creation. The way he thus embellished the works of the “divine Raphael” speaks to the perceived capacity for artistic craft to bolster the prestige of religious works of art just when El Greco himself would wash up on Italy’s shores.

This heightened reverence for artistic craft—and the tantalizing notion that creative virtuosity gets validated through acts of celestial favor—also changed the perception of older cult images that were otherwise not regarded as artistic artifacts. The painting Christ Carrying the Cross at the church of San Rocco in Venice reportedly began to perform miracles in 1519 and subsequently became one of the city’s most highly venerated icons. The painting’s earliest documentary records classify it as an anonymous work, but Vasari and Francesco Sansovino later assigned it to Giorgione and Titian. In a similar fashion, Vasari and Benedetto Varchi attributed the miraculous fresco at Santissima Annunziata in Florence to known artists, the former supporting Giotto’s student Pietro Cavallini as the painting’s real master. These post facto attributions of mystical images to the hands of known painters signal a later sixteenth-century exaltation of artists and the images they made. This in turn bears witness to the cult of artistic excellence that nurtured El Greco’s development. Of course, El Greco did not reasonably expect his paintings to produce miracles. But he surely recognized that this desire to credit artists for making images that were especially powerful devotional aids was indicative of a newfound esteem for painters to garner both artistic and religious prestige through the works they created.

The artful icon thus emerges through the recognition that the artistic conditions of a created image define it as an icon. In fact, Charles Barber’s reevaluation of Byzantine icon theory from an art-historical point of view shows that iconoclastic debates centered on the very objecthood of the manufactured icon as well as on the representational potential—and limits—of an image to convey its prototype through visual (that is, artistic) means. The result was the conceptual valorization of the icon on the basis of its very artifice being essential to its meaning and function. El Greco’s artistic output proves the continuation of such notions in his day. The following chapters show how his paintings from Venice and Rome embody sixteenth-century conceptions of the religious image as both a devotional object and an artistic product.

After the first chapter’s thorough examination of the artful icon manifested in paintings of St. Luke painting the Virgin and Child and of St. Veronica’s veil as self-reflexive statements on the ontology of the religious image, chapter 2 focuses on more common devotional paintings of standard biblical scenes in the form of small portable panels, either standing alone or as incorporated into triptychs. By maintaining a production of pictures based on compositional repetition, El Greco’s procedures differed little from those learned in Crete. Furthermore, he aligned his practice with prevailing debates concerning the relative devoutness of the “Greek style,” which he rejected, and the more modern Italian manner in a way that reveals a demand for devotional works whose artistry represented the most up-to-date aesthetic achievements.

Belief in the causal relationship between an image’s appearance and its devotional effectiveness for certain audiences provided El Greco the impetus to fashion a style after the examples of the great Italian masters who preceded him. Chapter 3 analyzes his synthetic union of disparate artistic styles to follow the formula for the hypothetical “god of painting” who, according to Paolo Pino, would successfully combine the form-defining design of Michelangelo with Titian’s proclivities as a colorist. By putting this theoretical hybrid of disegno and colorito into practice, El Greco demonstrated the extent to which current theories of art informed his painting practice when enacted to provide effective vehicles for devotional engagement.

El Greco’s mastery of Italian painting styles led him to pursue new and more ambitious compositions that further pushed the formal possibilities of the artful icon. Chapter 4 looks at how his Cleansing of the Temple and Christ Healing the Blind paintings employ theatrical effects of performative gesture and scenographic perspective to fit a new model of the religious narrative as a form of devotional image that is both affective and didactic. Chapter 5 focuses on three paintings made in Cardinal Alessandro Farnese’s court in the early 1570s to explain how El Greco’s activities in Rome shaped his thinking as a creator of religious art: a portrait of Giulio Clovio that exemplifies the role of the religious painter as an intellectual, an informed use of ancient Roman architecture in the Parma Christ Healing the Blind to bolster the theme of spiritual renewal, and an allegorical Boy Blowing an Ember that demonstrates the reception and physical manifestation of light as divine grace.

Finally, chapter 6 looks at the paintings El Greco completed for the altarpiece at Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo as a culminating summa of his Italian experience. I discuss the format of the altarpiece as a devotional image according to the contemporary uses and functions of the altars on which such works appeared. The relationship between viewer and prototype, the dialogue between artistic representation and the real presence of the ensemble’s Eucharistic tabernacle, and the liturgical function that these features played all manifest the altarpiece as the epitome of the artful icon.

Together these chapters show that artistic excellence does not contradict the iconicity of El Greco’s religious images but rather enhances it. The virtuoso artfulness that characterizes El Greco’s body of work, building up his stylistic repertoire in disegno, colorito, figural complexity, a nuanced artificial perspective, and antiquarian references, conforms to the prevailing conception of religious works of art as images designed to meet devotional needs. His sensitivity to these issues is symptomatic of his having remained an icon painter at heart, having kept the devotional requirements of his works foremost in his mind. Consequently, this book shows that El Greco’s Italy provided an arena for the artist to systematically address key forms and subjects in order to engage and integrate notions of “art” and the “religious image.”

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