Andreas Pavias,The Crucifixion (Late 15th century) © Athens, National Gallery of Athens–Alexander Soutzos Museum, inv. no. 144
When confronted with icons, educated viewers rarely know what they’re looking at. The problem is not a lack of education, but the nature of the one most of us received. Giorgio Vasari, the father of art history, was right about many things, but he began his Lives of the Artists by taking aim at the “incompetent … crude, stiff, and mediocre … dead tradition of the Greeks.” We know better now: In the last half-century, Byzantine art historians have permanently altered our understanding of neglected Eastern contributions to Italian art. Recently reconsidered Byzantine frescoes and the discovery of icons at St. Catherine’s Monastery, at the foot of Mount Sinai, show that Byzantine painters in fact anticipated Cimabue and Giotto’s innovations centuries beforehand. Historical circumstances, however, permitted these images little chance to influence the late-blooming discipline of art history, an opportunity which fell to Vasari instead.
New York City has been part of the reappraisal of the Byzantine tradition. In 1944, the Metropolitan Musuem of Art was surprised by the popularity of its show displaying copies of the mosaics of Hagia Sofia, one of which still quietly overlooks the medieval sculpture gallery. Since then, the museum has celebrated Byzantine splendor with three blockbuster exhibits: “The Age of Spirituality” (1977), “The Glory of Byzantium” (1997), and “Byzantium: Faith and Power” (2004). Sensitive to the religious nature of these items, the opening of the latter even featured the blessing of an Orthodox priest, incense and all. But what makes “The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete” so unique is its chronology. Most previous shows have concluded their survey of the Byzantine aesthetic with the end of the Empire in 1453. But “The Origins of El Greco” breaks these academic bonds entirely—1453 may have marked the end of Byzantine political power, but it was a new beginning for the icon. Recent research in Venetian archives have revealed how thousands of icons were pumped into Western territories from Crete, pouring into Venice at the height of the Renaissance and flooding into Florence under Vasari’s very nose. The icon, we now know, never disappeared; it was only ignored.
As art objects from American museums hasten, under threat of lawsuit, back to Europe, it is reassuring to see the temporary reverse, thanks to magnanimous loans from Heraklion, Athens, St. Petersburg, and Corfu extended to this exhibition. Each piece in the show reveals the persistence of the icon in an age when it was supposed to have gone away: Andreas Pavias’s crucifixion gives Northern Renaissance detailing a run for its money; Georgios Klontzas’s illustration of a Marian Hymn rivals the torque of the Baroque; a snowball of souls swells in the hand of God above an icon of David and Solomon; Arius, the fourth-century heretic who confined the divine nature of Christ, is himself confined in Michael Damaskinos’s icon of the Council of Nicea; what may be a long dispersed triptych of El Greco’s is here reunited for the first time. We rehearse the evolution from wood to canvas and from tempera to oil, and for good reason, but the icons on display here show us what was lost in the transition. Canvas cannot age the way some of these wooden panels have.
It is the linear quality of the late Byzantine and Cretan icons that give them their tender severity. One can trace the gradual loss of this arresting linearity in the show. Although the exhibition itself refers to how one Cretan artist “distance[s] himself from the rigidity of the Byzantine style,” it could be suggested, on the contrary, that he succumbs to Venetian softness. Compare the two Virgin Lactans in the exhibition—the intentionally juxtaposed Eastern and Venetian styles—and see for yourself which of them contains more power. The Venetian Mary hints at San Sulpician sentimentality; the Eastern Mary, bare breast notwithstanding, is still the Theotokos, the all-holy bearer of God. But not for long. As Italian prints saturated the Mediterranean, late icon painters were hypnotized by Bronzino and Parmigianino, and many could not help but embrace their style.
And what of El Greco? He is not the point of the show as much as the bait. A similar strategy was employed this season with the opening of the spacious post-Byzantine wing of the Byzantine and Christian Museum of Athens. A temporary and not terribly impressive Andy Warhol exhibit was displayed in conjunction with a very impressive collection of later icons, simply because recognizable names are the only way to lure a public conditioned by celebrity inside. If you want full-blown Spanish-era El Greco, head to the Met or the Frick, but at the Onassis Center one can currently see something arguably better: Where he came from, and where—towards the end of his life— he returned. Only here can we see how El Greco’s whirling western skies were persistently haunted by golden ones, just as art history is haunted by its hidden foundation: the icon, a Byzantine ghost.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 5, on page 48
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