El Greco in Budapest

News: World News
by Martina Moyski  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  February 15, 2023   

On the trail of the artist

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (ChurchMiliant.com) - The work of one of the greatest European artists of all time is drawing art lovers to the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.

"Self-Portrait" by Domenikos Theotokópoulos

People from all over the world are traveling to Hungary's capital to see more than 50 paintings by the 16th-century master Domenikos Theotokópoulos — more commonly known by his nickname, El Greco. The exhibit — eponymously called "El Greco" — has been running since last October and will conclude on Feb. 19.

The artist's life and work were marked by a deep underlying faith in God — and his own talents. He once said, "I was created by the all-powerful God to fill the universe with my masterpieces."

The exhibit is organized around the artist's life — arguably one of the most remarkable stories in the history of Western art.

From his birth in Crete to stays in Venice, Rome and Toledo, to the ashbin of history for two and a half centuries, and then finally to a rediscovery by artists in the 19th century, his life truly represents the cycle of our Faith — life, death and resurrection.

Cretan & Venetian Period

El Greco was born in 1541 on the island of Crete, then an artistically flourishing state under the control of Venice.

Concerning this general period, critics previously knew little of the artist's life. But in 1983, his signature was discovered on a painting called the "Dormition of the Virgin." It gave greater insight into, and confirmed, his training as a painter of Byzantine forms.

"Dormition of the Virgin"

Because of his talent and ambition, El Greco eventually outgrew Crete and the iconographic style. Furthering his career, he moved to Venice itself, then one of the epicenters of Renaissance art.

Here, he found himself under the tutelage of Titian, considered perhaps the greatest painter of the time. He began mastering fundamental aspects of Renaissance painting, including perspective and realistic landscapes, blending them with the Greek iconography he had mastered in Crete.

El Greco picked up on Titian's facility for painting dark colors and for the dramatic interplay between darkness and light — what artists call "chiaroscuro." One story recounts how he chose to paint in a darkened room because he believed he was able to get in touch with the "mystical, religious quality" he was trying to create.

In Venice, El Greco also befriended the great portrait painter Giulio Clovio, whose influence can be seen in later paintings, particularly a portrait of a young St. Aloysius Gonzaga.

Roman Period

El Greco's artistic antennae then led him to Rome, the capital of the Church, and to greater potential for artistic patronage. Here, he enjoyed the support of the famous Cdl. Alessandro Farnese, himself a powerful patron, collector and restorer of art.

"Purification of the Temple"

In Rome, El Greco produced, among other notable paintings, the "Purification of the Temple" — the theme of which he would paint more than once during his career, as can be seen in the exhibition.

This painting is notable in that El Greco pays homage to those he deemed had influenced his art — namely, Titian, Michelangelo, Clovio and Raphael — by painting each of them in the foreground of the painting. 

But El Greco's single-minded determination and devotion to his craft worked against him in the Eternal City; he ran afoul of the establishment, criticizing the artistic abilities of Michaelangelo, who was obviously considered above reproach. "You must study the Masters, but guard the original style that beats within your soul and put to sword those who would try to steal it," he reputedly said.

Spanish Period

In 1577, while in his mid-30s, El Greco moved first to Madrid and then to Toledo, where he would remain for the rest of his life.


Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest unveiling

of St. Aloysius Gonzaga painting

In Toledo, he embarked on a wildly successful career, painting some of the most accomplished masterpieces of his life — and of European art in general.

One is a portrait of a young St. Aloysius Gonzaga, in which Clovio's influence can be seen.

The director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, László Baán, is especially excited about the inclusion of this painting within the corpus of the exhibit and about its becoming part of the museum's permanent collection.

According to Baán:

We have added an art object that was not yet part of our otherwise very significant El Greco collection. It's a portrait. It is about a young Italian aristocrat who served in the Spanish royal court in his youth. Then he dies and is canonized. In the 1700s, the pope declared him the patron saint of youth, Christian youth.

So it is also an exciting and interesting representation. We can see El Greco's fantastic craftsmanship which he mastered in Venice. There was such fire in the eyes of this young boy. Of course, we didn't know then — no one knew that he would be canonized, but obviously that kind of commitment, that inner fire El Greco was able to portray.

In addition to portraiture created at this time, the paintings, characterized by exaggerated (and often elongated) religious figures that stretch beyond the realities of human life, continue to wow art lovers around the world.

I was created by the all-powerful God to fill the universe with my masterpieces.

These works — too numerous to mention and some impossible to include in the exhibition — include the "Disrobing of Christ" above the high altar of the sacristy in the Cathedral of Toledo and the "Holy Trinity" and the "Assumption of the Virgin" for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo.

"Disrobing of Christ"

Other landmark works include "St. Sebastian" and "St. Peter in Tears," as well as "The Adoration of the Shepherds" and the "Concert of Angels."

"Concert of Angels"

Famous for its neon green grass, the "View of Toledo," a most notable work from this period, is considered the first landscape in Spanish art.

"View of Toledo"

Death & Resurrection

El Greco died in 1614, and his reputation essentially died with him. It would be two and half centuries before his name and work would again meet the light of day. 

His work would lie dormant until 1838 when a gallery of Spanish works was displayed at the Louvre. Among those works were some signed by Domenikos Theotokópoulos.

Word of El Greco's work spread among modern artists such as Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso, who effectively brought the artist to the general public — and ultimately to Budapest.

El Greco: The Great Artist Forgotten For Three Centuries | Raiders Of The Lost Art | Perspective

Now, El Greco's name rises high atop the museum's exterior, beckoning visitors from all over the world to climb the museum steps and follow the trail of the artist.

Indeed, it is the depth and breadth of El Greco's artistic journey that the organizers of the exhibit attempted to collate and present to the world.

The spirit of creation is an excruciating, intricate exploration from within the soul.

According to organizers, the task took eight painstaking years of preparation. What El Greco said of his own art could spill over to the efforts of the organizers: "The spirit of creation is an excruciating, intricate exploration from within the soul."

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