Friday, November 27, 2009

The twain meets

Here's one of the most striking works of art I've seen in a long time, Michael Damaskenos' "Adoration of the Magi" (1585-91). What's striking is the force of it, which comes in part from the fusion of two different artistic traditions - one Western, in the bodies and movements, the other Eastern, in the gold background and, especially, the stylized craggy mountain that rises up in the picture's middle. It's as if the magi were coming from the land of icons to the incarnated world of Italian painting. But in other paintings in the amazing exhibition "The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Greece" at the Onassis Cultural Center, the directionality is the opposite. In the painting on the poster, "Chist and the Woman of Samaria," possibly by Nikolaos Tzafouris, icon-mountains rise against a Bellini-blue sky. In another (sorry, I couldn't find an image for you), the hand of Mary Magdalene, three-dimensional, her body contorted, is stayed by a just-risen Christ in the garden; he's the iconic one here, more and less than 3-D. The point was that Crete, by this time a Venetian colony and home to a number of Orthodox artists who fled the fall of Constantinople, was a confluence of artistic (and religious) cultures, and a site of prodigious borrowing (the "Pieta" above, on loan from the Hermitage, is Bellini on gold; asks the Times critic, "Is the painting Cretan or Venetian? Your call.") and remarkable creativity. El Greco didn't come out of the blue, but out of a culture mediating and melding traditions we're used to seeing in strict historic succession in western art museums. But here - over years stretching from the fall of Constantinople through the Counter-Reformation - we see conventions of the Orthodox icon tradition hobnobbing with dynamic three-dimensional bodies, landscapes, perspective, and even late Gothic motifs like the roiling crowd at the foot of the cross in in Andreas Pavias' "Crucifixion" above (which reminds me of contemporary but Lutheran altarpieces I saw in Germany). Of course Domenikos Theotokopoulos, El Greco, represented here by early works like "The Dormition of the Virgin" (before 1567) and most strikingly by the study for a "Coronation of the Virgin" below (1603), after he'd retrained in Italy and moved to Toledo, remains an astounding original even when seen as a product of this artistic and cultural ferment! But it's a peculiar pleasure to see that it wasn't just his genius, but a whole hybridizing culture at play here... The exhibit said little about the clash or convergence of religions in Crete - it was noted that motifs from Greek and Latin Christian traditions came together, and even that Francis of Assisi was venerated among Crete's Orthodox, but when and how and why El Greco changed religion wasn't mentioned. (Perhaps he didn't? It would be very interesting to see how these works were received by theologians, and in lay practice, at the time.

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