2023 Grateful 48: El Greco

I’m still kicking myself that I missed the Hieronymus Bosch exhibition in Budapest last year. Not because I’m a fan of the man’s work (I don’t know it) but because I am a Harry Bosch devotee. The book A Darkness More than Night features the painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. And this was what I’d wanted to see. But I missed it.

I know sod all about art, except for what I like. But I like to visit exhibitions of work by famous artists to see what all the fuss is about. Like the National Gallery’s exhibit: The Surrealist Movement from Dalí to Magritte – Crisis and Rebirth in 1929 or Francis Bacon and the School of London or Frida Kahlo. I look at the paintings, read the blurbs, and try to understand what I’m seeing but ultimately it’s about how they make me feel.

I’ve often wondered if painters and artists feel miffed when viewers simply don’t get where they’re coming from. I asked Hungarian painter Szilvai Fekete this last week. ‘My job’, she said, ‘is to create the art. That’s my job done. What it says to you, that’s on you.’ I felt as if a weight of failed expectations had been lifted from my shoulders.

Neoclassical style byilding built between 1900 and 1906. Betweel 8 columns hang portraits each with a letter spelling out EL GRECO. Two queues form down the steps leading up to the gallery. The words Szépművészeti Múzeum are written gold just below the base of the triange that forms the roof.

In Budapest recently, we visited the Szépművészeti Múzeum (Museum of Fine Arts) to see the El Greco exhibition. I had a vague notion that he did a lot of religious stuff and was curious to see his renderings of Jesus and Mary. Their faces fascinate me – or at least, the faces they’ve been given fascinate me. And, if the artist has been painting over a period of time, I’m curious to see if they keep the same faces or if their version changes.

El Greco seems to have done things a little differently and was fond of distortion.

El Greco is best known for his tortuously elongated figures painted in phantasmagorical pigmentation, which almost resembled chalk with its blunt vividness. The importance of imagination and intuition over subjective characterization was a fundamental principle in El Greco’s style, allowing him the freedom to discard such classical criteria as measure and proportion. Instead, he employed techniques such as radical foreshortening to challenge perceptions of the norm.

A painting by El Greco - Our Lady ascends into heaven holding the Baby Jesus and flanked by angels.. AT her feet float st Anges in a yellow robe on her left and St MArtina in a red robe on her right. St Agnes has her hand on a lion while St Martina holds a lamb in her left hand.

Viewing the exhibit, I had my first encounter with St Martina in Madonna and Child with Saint Martina and Saint Agnes. My confirmation name is Martina after St Martin de Porres. I only discovered St Martina lately … and here she was again (bottom right).

El Greco seems to have been a man who did things more than once. He painted something and then painted it again. There were a number of versions of the Assumption of Our Lady, and for the most part, her older self seemed to be modelled on the one woman. Her earlier self though went through quite a few changes before her rather chiselled features were revealed.

El Creco painting of a boy blowing on an ember to light a candle, His face is lit up while the background is in darknessA few viewers were taking photos surreptitiously. I had seen a notice at the entrance but couldn’t decide if it was a case of no photos or no flashes. The ladies on patrol looked quite fierce and I wasn’t in the mood for a showdown. We’d booked the 4pm viewing on a Saturday (not advisable). It was very crowded. Too crowded to have much space to simply sit and stare.

I’d wander with the tide, read the bits, and then double back to see if I could snatch some space-time with paintings that had resonated with me.

I was particularly taken by his Boy blowing an ember to light a candle. The light is quite something. There’s a great visual story about it on Google Arts and Culture – it’s worth a minute of your time.

I spent a lot of time in the Jesus room. I grew up with images of Jesus in books showing him as a white, bearded chap with a long face. While in the States, I found a painting of him as a Navajo Indian. I find it fascinating how the different Masters saw him and painted him. Their Jesuses look nothing like the Jesus in my head. Caravaggio’s being a case in point. I barely recognised Him.


Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus shows four men at a table. Back left a man with a white kerchief on his head is standing looking over the should of Jesus in the middle who is seated, looking down with his right arm and hand extended. To his left a bearded man sits with both arms full outstretched to the sides. In the foreground the fourth man makes as if to rise from the chair. On the table is a goble with wine glasses, a bowl of fruit, some break and what looks like a roast chicken
Supper at Emmaus (1601) by Caravaggio; Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While I can appreciate on an intellectual level that El Greco’s paintings were “genuinely unique since he blended the artistic elements of three separate eras and ideals of art”, I didn’t find myself warming to the man. But I did sorta like his Jesus. Sorta. I liked the sense of reflection and that he carried the cross in front of him rather than dragging it behind. I need to figure out why that makes a difference to me.


The exhibition runs til 19 February, so you have time if you’re in Budapest. And while I’d not say no if someone were to give me a painting by El Greco, I’d not be saving to buy one. Am grateful to have come to that realisation.









When Connolly’s Bosch comes face-to-face with Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks …

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