El Greco was not mad, he was not a religious fanatic, and he did not have visions of saints that sent him rushing to his easel. Nor did he have an astigmatism that caused him to paint the gaunt, fiery figures that some thought were modeled after inmates in insane asylums.
The debunking of these legends -- and others surrounding both El Greco (1541-1614) and the city he immortalized in his "View of Toledo" -- is one of the central revelations of "El Greco of Toledo," the exhibition that opens Friday at the National Gallery of Art. But the greatest revelation is the art itself: about 60 masterpieces gathered from all over the world for the first major international loan exhibition of El Greco's work. On display first at the Prado in Madrid, the show offers a rare opportunity to see in one place important works by the Cretan-born Domenikos Theotokopoulos, best known by his Spanish nickname "El Greco" (the Greek).
Despite his current fame, El Greco was virtually forgotten for 250 years after his death. Only when he was rediscovered by late 19th-century Romantics and early Modernists, who saw him as a stylistic ancestor, did the myths of madness and religious fanaticism begin to grow.
The desire of the Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art to mark the 50th anniversary of its city's sister relationship with Toledo, Spain, happily coincided with the need of historian Richard L. Kagan of The Johns Hopkins University and other scholars to dispel such legends. Thus the exhibition came about.
Kagan, one of the committee of five scholars who put the show together, and fellow scholar Jonathan Brown of New York University make a formidable case for rethinking both El Greco and his city, Toledo. One of the most important finds toward this end was the accidental discovery by two young Spanish architectural historians of El Greco's own thoughts on art, inscribed by him in the margins of a 1556 edition of Vitruvius' On Architecture that had moldered away for centuries in a library in Spain. Once a part of the artist's own extensive library, this book, like the copy of the 1568 edition of Vasari's Lives of the Artists , discovered earlier in a Spanish bookshop. These are El Greco's first writings on art to come to light. The two volumes will be on view with the paintings at the National Gallery.
"The discovery of the Vitruvius book, annotated by El Greco, was crucial because it provided a means of piecing together the artist's esthetic, his ideas about art and architecture," Kagan said. "El Greco writes, for example, about the fact that he elongates his figures because, for him, elongated figures are more beautiful than shorter ones, a characteristic of the late 16th-century Italian style known as 'Mannerism,' which had nothing to do with religious fanaticism. Thus we now know that his ties to the fashionable 'Mannerist' style were stronger than we had previously imagined -- because he said so. Jonathan Brown was already on this track, but the discovery of this documentation added weight."
Having established that the style was not rooted in religious mysticism of any sort, Brown proceeded to argue that the pursuit of fame and fortune, not yearning for salvation, propelled El Greco through life. Trained in Crete as a painter of Byzantine-style icons, he left for Venice and Rome, where he learned to paint in the western mode, adopting the colors of Titian and Tintoretto and the forms of Michelangelo and Raphael. He pays homage to both the forms and the colors of these masters in one of the few paintings to survive from his Italian years, "The Purification of the Temple (Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple)," lent by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. In the lower right corner of the painting are portraits of his mentors, perhaps a bit of self-promoting name-dropping.
There is other evidence of his cockiness: In his 30s, after Michelangelo's death, he proposed that he be allowed to repaint the "Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel. Fortunately, Pope Pius V turned him down.
El Greco failed to secure sufficient patronage or commissions in Rome; in 1577 he went off to Spain to find work at the court of Philip II, then the most powerful ruler in the world. He obtained one commission from Philip, but the king was not pleased with the result. El Greco turned then to Spain's ecclesiastical center at Toledo, where among the city's 26 churches, 36 convents and monasteries, 18 shrines, 20 hospitals and four religious colleges he found enough work to keep him and his workshop busy for the rest of his life.
Though his first Toledo commission, from the cathedral, ended in a dispute over money (the first of many such battles he was to wage), his friendships with the ecclesiastics and intellectuals who controlled selection committees on church art ensured him a steady flow of commissions.
The fervor of the Counter-Reformation also provided a perfect opportunity.Participants in the Council of Trent sought to repel the feformers' challenge by clarifying doctrine. "Recognizing the power of images to influence belief, [the council] ordered that churches display only images that had a didactic purpose," Kagan said. The council fathers wanted paintings that would bring people to their knees, and El Greco turned out to be a master of the genre. El Greco knew his Bible and his dogma well, and he knew what would sell. Subjects such as the Virgin Mary, the remorseful Mary Magdalene, the apostle Peter and the cleansing of the Temple proved extremely popular. El Greco produced multiple versions of many paintings, keeping samples on hand in his studio from which copies could be ordered. The price depended upon whether the master, his assistants or his son Jorge Manuel executed the work. Accordng to records thus far uncovered, El Greco never married, but, from the time he arrived in Toledo, he lived with the woman who gave birth to his son.
"Much of the interpretation of El Greco as a mystic came from the idea that Toledo itself was a city seething with mystics and otherworldly religiosity," says Kagan, whose catalogue essay argues that Toledo's Catholocism was inhospitable to mystical explorations.
The scholars, for their part, expect some to rebut their conclusions. "Myths have a way of outliving their makers, and revisionists such as ourselves find it difficult to change people's long-standing attitudes. It's the scholar's lament."
The show will remain at the National Gallery's East Building through Sept. 6, and will then travel to the Toledo Museum of Art and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts.