‘El Greco and Modern Painting’

Written on July 28, 2014 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies

grecoOne Sunday in May this year, 52 residents voted to change the name of their village near Burgos, in northern Spain. It had been known since 1623 as Castrillo Matajudíos (the second word means “kill Jews”) but a majority voted to restore the original name of Mota de Judíos, “Hill of the Jews”. Google Maps has already honoured the decision.

The toponymic activism of this tiny settlement mirrors wider changes in how Spain is re-evaluating its rich, troubled, Jewish past. Barely two weeks later, Spain’s government approved a new law enabling members of the worldwide Sephardic community – descendants of Spanish Jews expelled after 1492 – to claim dual Spanish citizenship. The gesture accompanies a general surge of interest in Spain in all things Sephardic, which has, in turn, coloured the current celebrations to mark the quatercentenary of the death of Doménikos Theotokópoulos, or El Greco.

The Cretan-born painter has certainly fired Spain’s collective imagin­ation. El Greco and Modern Painting, which recently opened at Madrid’s Museo del Prado, is attracting long queues. Earlier this year, a quarter of a million visitors saw another display of El Greco’s work in the painter’s adoptive city of Toledo, where smaller shows are set to run this autumn.

The location of one of these, in Toledo’s 14th-century Tránsito Synagogue, is appropriate, given the enduring intrigue around the painter’s origins. Was El Greco Jewish? All evidence suggests that he was raised a Greek Orthodox Christian. The novelist Félix Urabayen, however, was one of several early 20th-century Spanish writers convinced of El Greco’s Jewish (and possibly Sephardic) ancestry. “Semitic the city”, Urabayen wrote of Toledo, “and Semitic its painter.”

Under the 1939-75 dictatorship of General Franco, the painter’s soulful caballeros were held up as the essence of Spain. Part of the fascination in his art, in Urabayen’s day as now, seems to be the counter-narrative that El Greco invites. Jewish or not, he was undoubtedly an outsider: a liminal figure, who opens up new ways of seeing.

Having absorbed Venetian colour and Roman muscularity into the Byzantine style of his roots, “Il Greco” arrived in Spain in 1576, settling in Toledo. At the dusty, churchy heart of the Spanish empire, the city he painted into his biblical retellings is bathed in an eerie light, a place to which heaven sometimes swoops to reveal itself, as in his masterpiece “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz” (1586-88).

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