December 31, 2014

In about an hour we will drive to Washington and attend a communion service at the Methodist Church. The pastor favors the 18th century service written by John Wesley where members renew the covenant with the Judah-Christian diety.  We provide the "fixins": Vicky baked a loaf of bread for the service and I placed two bottles of grape juice in a plastic bag. I once asked the members to vote on either wine or juice, but as they were reluctant to express a preference I surprise them, sometimes one and sometimes the other; wine is placed in a beautiful decanter and juice in a plastic WalMart bag - tonight, juice.

 Almost thirty years ago we visited Toledo. We arrived by train from Madrid and the view of the city from the train station at the bottom of the hill immediately brought to mind El Greco's famous painting - transporting me back to the 16th century, at least for a moment, and making an indelible impression on my memory.


El Greco, View of Toledo, (c. 1596–1600, oil on canvas, 47-3/4 x 42-3/4 inches, Metropolitan Museum of Art)


 In El Greco's painting the city itself takes up a small space in the center, while the landscape and sky dominate the work. This is not just any sky; the clouds seem about to open and unleash a storm of some sort on the city. The buildings  move across the painting, and the curving lines of  the hill give the impression that the vista might actually be alive.  Something is about to happen and it probably will not be good.

The ominous sky of the Giogione's the Tempest  makes a great juxtaposition.

El Greco combines Byzantine traditions with those of Western painting.  Eastern mysticism is evident in the painting.  Almost entirely subsumed by the landscape, the city seems to be at the direct mercy of  a wrathful Old Testament  god. Toledo is about to undergo a reckoning.  But at the same time, the landscape transcends a religious reading and reflects the inner conflict of the individual, the feeling that making one’s way in the world is a harrowing journey.

Although El Greco, (The Greek) is  known as a Spanish painter, he was born Domenikos Theotokopouolos  in 1541 in Crete.  He was trained in the tradition of Byzantine icon paintings in either Crete or Venice, where he painted in Titian’s workshop. In the 1570s he moved to Rome, then on to Spain.

He arrived in Toledo in 1577 and signed contracts for a group of paintings that was to adorn the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo.  By September 1579 he had completed nine paintings for Santo Domingo, including The Trinity and The Assumption of the Virgin. These works would establish the painter's reputation in Toledo.

El Greco did not plan to settle permanently in Toledo, since his  aim was to win the favor of Philip and make his mark in his court. He did manage to secure two  commissions from the monarch: Allegory of the Holy League and Martyrdom of St. Maurice. However, the king did not like these works.  Lacking the favor of the king, El Greco was obliged to remain in Toledo making it his home. He lived in considerable style, sometimes employing musicians to play while he dined. Probably he lived with his Spanish companion, Jerónima de Las Cuevas, the mother of his only son.

The painting of Toledo also expresses the religious tension of Spain at the time. In the early 1500s, Spain’s Catholic Church expanded  the Spanish Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition was the throne's response to the multi-religious nature of Spanish society following the reconquest  of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslim Moors. After invading in 711, large areas of the Iberian Peninsula were ruled by Muslims until 1250, when they were restricted to Granada, until it fell in 1492. However, the reconquest  did not result in the expulsion of Muslims from Spain, since they, along with Jews, were tolerated by the ruling Christian elite. Large cities, especially Seville, Valladolid and Barcelona, had significant Jewish populations centered in Juderia, but in the coming years the Muslims were increasingly subjugated and mistreated. The Jews, who had previously thrived under Muslim rule, suffered similar maltreatment.


Spain's dark history almost excluded it, culturally, from the rest of Western Europe. The art historian Kenneth Clark went so far as to omit the country from his popular Civilization series, which covered the art of the west from the fall of Rome to the tumultuous 1960's.