Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 24: El Greco

I have a thoroughly secular approach to Christmas — family, a tree, presents, turkey with all the trimmings, booze, the Doctor Who Christmas special — but still, the obvious choice for the last painting in my calendar is some kind of nativity scene. And for me, there was only ever going to be one choice. So here’s The Adoration of the Shepherds by El Greco:

Now THAT is what I call a painting. I feel proud to be part of a species that can make something like that. I was absolutely blown away by the El Greco exhibition at the National Gallery a few years ago; I’d seen a few of his paintings, but his work wasn’t really part of my mental furniture. But to see it all together, and especially the big religious paintings like this one: I just think he is the most extraordinary painter, amongst the very greatest.

It seems so modern, so fresh, that it’s hard to believe it was painted in 1614, with those distorted figures and dramatic colours. Although actually I think to call it ‘modern’ is to claim too much for our own time, to suggest that we have progressed so much that modern painters produce work like this all the time. No, this work would be extraordinary at any time. It’s just even more amazing that it was painted when it was, at a time which was perhaps less prepared for these kind of stylised images.

Happy Christmas everyone, however you celebrate it.

7 replies on “Harry’s advent calendar of paintings, day 24: El Greco”

Harry, thank you. I have greatly enjoyed your advent calendar (even the Renoir post, which had me feeling anxious until I scrolled down). I would like to read more about your take on El Greco (he is weird, he is sui generis, but why is he so good?).

A very happy Christmas to you and yours.

Glad you enjoyed it. Happy Christmas :)

Here’s another thought about El Greco: his style seems like more than just the combined effect of a particular set of aesthetic choices; it’s more like a whole different vision of the world. It’s not a mirror held up to our reality, however distorted: it’s a window into another one. Looking at these paintings is like having a religious vision.

Merry christmas, Harry, and thanks for all the paintings. I agree about El Greco. I was fortunate enough to see a number of his most iconic images in the Prado years ago, but best of all was “the Burial of the Count of Orgaz” in a little chapel in Toledo — seeing art like that in a religious setting rather than in a museum is especially impressive.

I did go to the Prado when I was about 20, and I loved it; and still remember some of the paintings, like Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, the Dürer self-portrait, the Goyas, Velázquez’s Las Meninas. But not, interestingly, the El Grecos. At that time, for whatever reason, they don’t seem to have made any impression on me at all. Don’t know why, though.

Merry Christmas.

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