The Cretan Paradox

It's riveting and highly influential, but El Greco's work never quite fit. Could the reason lie in his birthplace?


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El Greco is confusing. He is one of the few universally acknowledged great artists of history who does not fit into any of the established art movements or categories. Given his time period (late 16th – early 17th centuries), his art should fit into the early Baroque. But it does not. One characteristic of all the artists we now call Baroque is a fidelity to the physical presence of bodies. Think of Caravaggio’s light-splashed naturalism, the glow on the cheeks of the young boy-models that he dressed up in all manner of costumes. Or think of Rubens’ fleshy obsession with the might and heft of the human form, the huge canvases like giant meat towers made of bodies laboring at some common task.

El Greco, by contrast, painted unnatural bodies. They aren’t the sorts of bodies that exist in this, our world. El Greco’s bodies are longer and stretchier than those we encounter in daily life. He portrayed the human form as you might see it in a vision or a mystical trance. He looked at painting, it would seem, in the same way that his contemporary — the great mystic Saint Theresa of Ávila — looked at prayer. They were both seeking spiritual ecstasy.

Go & See

“El Greco in New York” Through February 1, 2015 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Except, there is no evidence that El Greco had any interest in spiritual visions or mystical ecstasies. Instead, he read boring tracts of Counter-Reformation theology and studied Renaissance art theory (we still have his library). El Greco was no Baroque painter, but he was no mystic either.

What to do with an artist who slips through every explanation?

Partially intact bull-jumping figurine from Minoan Crete, (1700-1450 BC)
Partially intact bull-jumping figurine from Minoan Crete, (1700-1450 BC)

El Greco is the artist who came from nowhere and never quite fit in. Not nowhere, exactly. An island. A place that, to most continental Europeans in the late 16th century, might as well have been the moon. It is a place known today as Crete. Crete is an ancient place, the cradle of Minoan civilization four thousand years ago. Ancient Greek civilization of the Bronze Age, the one we know from Homer’s epic poems, was shaped by the interactions between the Minoans and Mycenaeans. It was Mycenaean warriors like the ones Homer portrays in The Iliad (men like Agamemnon) who sacked both Troy and Minoan Crete.

El Greco, then, came from an island that is at the very heart of the story of Mediterranean civilization. But El Greco came from the side that lost. It is said that the Minoan palace structure at Knossos (Europe’s oldest city), did not have much in the way of fortifications. It was a place of relative peace. When the warlike Mycenaeans came from the mainland, they were able to conquer it without much trouble. Minoan Crete was destroyed in the process of conquest and subjugation that tied together the ancient world in the second millennium BC.

These are old stories, ancient memories. Does some glimmer of these stories linger in the images made by El Greco three thousand years later?

After having been conquered by the Mycenaeans, the Minoan civilization was absorbed into the Mycenaean. All that was left were ruins and the scribbling of a language — Linear A — that has yet to be deciphered. Among the ruins, frescoes. On the frescoes, images of the human body, sometimes engaged in the Minoan sport of bull jumping. And what of these Minoan bodies? What do they look like? They are stretched-out, unnatural and elongated.

There have always been artists who speak directly to their time. Michelangelo did that with his David. He took the vision of the human body from the classical age and made it new. Some of Michelangelo’s immediate predecessors, like Donatello, got close to fusing ancient forms with the restless new energy that was percolating so vividly in 15th century Italy. But Donatello’s David relaxes in confidence, having already defeated Goliath. Michelangelo’s David crackles with the tension of the fight with the giant that is just about to occur. It took Michelangelo to make the definitive statue, the one that, when they saw it, his contemporaries realized they’d been waiting for all along.

For other artists, try as they might to make work that speaks to prevailing trends, something odd results. Artists like this tack to the margins. They carry within them historical forces that counter the mainstream sensibility. Such artists are stranger, often, than they even realize. What looks natural to them looks wild and unusual to the rest of us. Such artists end up working most of their lives in towns like Toledo, the once-central but rapidly declining town where El Greco made an unlikely home for himself at the end of the 16th century. Such artists come, often, from places like Crete, places where history overlaps with ripples and creases that are hard to smooth out.

An ancient Greek philosopher named Epimenides penned a famous statement about people from Crete. “All Cretans,” Epimenides said, “are liars.” For some reason, the statement caught on. It became canonical when Saint Paul mentioned the saying in his Epistle to Titus (Titus was preaching in Crete). Paul referred to Epimenides’ quote to warn Titus of false prophets and other ne’er-do-wells. The idea that Cretans are liars and scoundrels became a part of the New Testament and passed into common knowledge. To this day, one meaning of the adjective “Cretan” is an untrustworthy knave.

Funny thing: Epimenides was himself a Cretan. So, when he called all Cretans liars, he was also referring to himself. But by calling himself a liar, he was telling the truth. That leads to an interesting paradox. If Epimenides was telling the truth, then he was a liar, and if he was lying, then he was telling the truth. That paradox has, like Cretans themselves, lingered at the edges of the Western mind for many a century. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when philosophers like Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell were trying to figure out a fully consistent system of formal logic, they thought about the Cretan paradox and others like it. These paradoxes are troubling to mathematicians and logicians because they are hard to formalize, yet difficult to get rid of. What do you do with a sentence that is perfectly well formulated and yet makes no sense, that is a violation of the very idea of sense?

Frege and Russell tried to tame the troubling paradoxes. But the final result of Epimenides’ Cretan paradox was Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, which states (to oversimplify) that one of the proofs of mathematics is that you can’t prove everything. With Gödel’s theorem, one of the great dreams of Rationalism hit the rocks.

That’s to say, Cretans have always had a trick or two up their sleeves. They throw flies into the civilizational ointment.

When El Greco was a young man, he learned to paint. But he didn’t learn to paint the way that kids in Florence or Venice were learning to paint. Italy was part of the Western Roman Empire. Crete was part of the East. Young El Greco, known as Doménikos Theotokópoulos at the time, learned to see and to paint the Byzantine way. He mastered the craft of making images of human beings that were flat and luminous, aids to worship for an Eastern Church that hadn’t forgotten its connections to the earliest Christian images. These images were not meant to look realistic. They were tools of transcendence.

One of the claims-to-fame of Renaissance art — according to its most committed promoter, Vasari — was that Renaissance painting, with its correct perspective and reality-mirroring techniques, had finally banished the “primitive” and “unsophisticated” painting techniques of the Eastern iconographers. Vasari loved to praise the 16th century Florentine masters for creating a beautiful style of art that could only come to fruition “after the extinction of the rude Greek manner.”

El Greco learned all the techniques of the great Renaissance masters. He could do linear perspective like any good Florentine. He understood how to use color as well as any Venetian. He’d incorporated the ideas of a mature Michelangelo and could twist a human figure into Mannerist contortions along with the best of Pontormo or Parmigianino. But let’s be honest. El Greco’s paintings never quite fit the Italian mold, even when he was trying his hardest. His Christ Healing the Blind (currently on view at The Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit El Greco in New York), painted around 1570 while El Greco was living in Italy, looks well-enough like a High Renaissance painting. But El Greco could not even bring himself to finish it. The two figures sitting on the steps in the middle of the painting have a diaphanous quality. El Greco never fully colored them in. You can see through them, like ghosts.

A few years after painting Christ Healing the Blind, El Greco was in Spain working on his first commission, The Assumption of the Virgin (1577-8). I don’t think Vasari would have approved of the cramped space and anatomical liberties. El Greco had jumped ship on the mainline tendencies of the Italian art of his time. He was tapping into a different kind of sensibility, one that desired to paint the human image flattened out and shimmering like something from another world. Something from a world further to the East.

To the end of his days, El Greco sometimes liked to sign his paintings with the Greek word “Kres.” “The Cretan.”

For many years, the paintings of “The Cretan” were completely ignored. In the 17th and 18th centuries, El Greco was barely spoken of at all. When his name did come up, it was along with the word “lunatic.” But the artworks of the lunatic were biding their time.

One especially insane painting depicts a scene from the Book of Revelation. The painting is known as The Vision of Saint John and sometimes called The Opening of the Fifth Seal. El Greco painted it near the end of his life (he died in 1614). It depicts (probably) the scene from the Book of Revelation where the Fifth Seal is opened. As the King James Bible tells it:

And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:

And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?

And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.

The Opening of the Fifth Seal (The Vision of St John) (1608-1614)

In El Greco’s painting, the foreground is dominated by the figure of Saint John, who kneels on the ground with his hands in the air. Behind him, the figures of the martyrs are exchanging their bright green and yellow robes for the white robes they will wear while they “rest yet for a little season.” The exchanging of the robes is assisted by three angelic putti, who dance in the air above the martyrs.

All of the human figures in The Vision of Saint John are painted with elongated bodies. Saint John’s torso, in particular, seems to stretch on and on beyond what the mortal skeleton has ever achieved. The bodies of the martyrs are similarly stretched-out and unnatural in their shape and form. The effect is a striking illustration of Saint John’s apocalyptic vision.

This painting hid out in various cities around Europe for three hundred years. Then it was purchased by an artist named Ignacio Zuloaga around 1897. Zuloaga was a Basque. And what is a Basque but, like a Cretan, a member of another tribe at the margins of European civilization? The Basque language is not even on the Indo-European language tree. The Basques refused to be Roman during the days of the Roman Empire and they have been refusing to be Spanish since the formative days of that nation state.

Zuloaga showed his crazy El Greco painting to his friend Picasso. Picasso was impressed with El Greco’s unique style and elongated bodies. The painting was a major source of inspiration for Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), by many accounts the first stab at Cubism, which Picasso and Braque would develop in coming years.

You could say, then, that Modernist art began not with any painting of the 20th century, but with El Greco’s time bomb of a painting from the early 17th century. And what was Modernism but a rejection of the main currents in art from the Renaissance until the late 19th century? Who better to pop a hole in that trajectory than our friend, the Cretan?

It has been speculated that the ancient Minoans of Crete were undone by nature before they were undone by the Mycenaean invaders. There were great volcanic eruptions in the 16th century BC. A volcano called Thera blew its top. An apocalypse.

There’s good reason to think that the Thera eruptions are the basis of the myth of Atlantis. Minoan civilization, at its height, was laid low by forces erupting from the earth’s crust, and then finished off by the mainland Greeks who came in for plunder and conquest.

Great historical and geological forces have a way of creating unexpected counter-forces. No one knows exactly why El Greco, the Cretan lunatic from another world, made his way from Crete, through Italy, and into Spain at the end of the 16th century. Perhaps he was carrying historical burdens greater than he realized. Whatever brought El Greco to Spain, his handiwork there still makes an impression today. You can see it in the work on display at the Metropolitan Museum in honor of the 400th anniversary of El Greco’s death. Nobody has ever painted quite like The Cretan. • 12 November 2014