EL GRECO DRAMATIC ART FIND OR AN INTERESTING ENIGMA. |
A beautiful and moving painting which holds more questions than answers.
It was among dozens of others in this dank and dismal basement of a middle class house in London´s Portobello Road. It´s owner had just made a few works available to a well known gallery and the state of some of them looked critical as some revealed balding areas which would take a lot of work and expense to restore. It was badly lit and three of them although obviously over painted in two cases, stood out as clear masterworks seemingly around the 17th. or sixteenth century. Relining and patch repairs behind the canvases showed they had been taken care of over a period and sometimes with whatever material was affordable at the time. The paintings were on offer at what seemed to be very reasonable prices taking into account their religious nature. One was a Venus or some sort and betrayed echoes of “Titian”. The other, a type of Pieta with an Angel which was very unusual and even in the twilight produced an impact that according to its present owner “ sent a shiver of excitement down his spine”.
He had been taken there by a well known art dealer near Ladbroke Grove who knew his preferences and who had struck lucky both at auctions and in retail purchases of quality antiques. This time he knew he had not just obtained one but three potential "finds" although,as he confessed to the dealer,he had misgivings about putting them out for research and expert opinion without real Provenance to attach them to. The family members disposing of them were concerned about the fact that the heritage came from a military father posted to Burgos and Toledo during the Spanish Civil War. The paintings had been valued on quality alone by the family bankers since signatures were not visible on all three paintings which required a deep cleaning that had not been done properly over the centuries. They had been rejected by his brothers and sisters who had been brought up with them but which they said could have been taken from some monastery or aristocratic household in the early thirties when the communists had been burning these things. The local priests had always warned the father about the heretical nature of one or two of them although they could not understand why. The dealer they had chosen to sell them, had been told that they would deny any connection with them after they left the house.The local Bishop back in Spain who knew where they came from and called it a private Church collection for works of this nature and was obviously close to this military family. He had made it clear that some of them were not for public viewing although they hoped they could be saved and find suitable homes because they were very important works and recognized their historical value. This was the story that the art dealer had told us and which the family members were able to verify although almost nervously. They knew that they would be lost for ever if left in the basement much longer and they confirmed that the dealer - a very professional bi-cultural (French English) man of some aristocratic bearing who owned a Gallery in Portobello, was the only one they had every talked to about the hoard.
The Curious Find.
The main painting of a dead Christ being raised by an Archangel and a shroud covered coffin just to the right of the painting,leaves little to the imagination except perhaps the hidden underlying beauty and colours which the dark areas hinted at when seen in dayight. The main painting which stood at 143,60 cms. tall by 95,90 cms. wide evoked an immediate reflection of Italian composition and on closer examination the Jesus model appeared to be similar to one in a deposition by Tintoretto. The new owner therefore assumed it was some sort of original or studio copy of one by the artist but did not, for academic reasons and fact finding freshness, ever commit himself to experts with respect to who he thought was the probable painter. The first inkling of what it might be, came with its first contact with an Italian restorer also in London who was known for some of his findings in the process of his work. To quote the owner “I saw that look in his eye as he stared at it and then at me - "stuck for words it seems” He had apparently made a cryptic comment about it which were to be made by many others after that and which convinced him that it was no ordinary work “this painting may well hold surprises” . He also thought the real flesh Christ on an altar cross in front of a monstrance, could also come from the same hand, but it was not immediately obvious. These selfsame comments were to follow the present owner throughout his life and one well known country auction house allowed to see it even went as far as to say “it would cause a stir in the international art market", but they refused to say why.
About three years ago when I was shown the painting for the first time, I realized just how difficult it would be to trace the painter, without an enormous and exhaustive investigation forcing the owner to leave it in strange hands for periods at a time without knowing whether a definitive discovery could place it in danger. I had read of a few of such incidents and my own art dealers had also told me of a few more. I was later to find that many a so called art critic and or academic had a flat view of art and if the work was not listed throughout its history or commented on, then it did not technically exist as a work by an indicated painter. These ridiculous assumptions were to lead me to ignore them even if , as in one case, they had books published on the artist. They disappointingly appeared to be no more than two dimensional in their understandings and whilst they often showed signs of having read up on techniques etc, they were somehow incapable of seeing those things which make an innate and sensitive artist understand where the connections were and how some of these pointed in the direction of authenticity - even if the painting did not reflect the style for which the respective painters were known for. One such flat earth author with a couple of degrees apparently under his belt and another of equal standing said exactly the same thing “•This NOT an El Greco” On asking why they thought it was not after having read a report by another academic who claimed it practically was, they both had the temerity to say that it had never been registered in the annals of art history and that the composition was faulty! It was then that I really understood just how incompetent book worms without artistic sensitivity and imagination were with respect to the ability to identify authorship. A comment like that about a maverick painter like EL Greco whose effects were obtained by taking compositions beyond the logical,said only one thing - that these so called experts were not artists. What they were doing charging for critical appraisals, was tantamount to false pretensions.
An Immediately Obvious Masterwork
One of the qualities of the painting which demands respect and on which everyone else agrees about, is that it all hangs beautifully - form, space, artistic elevating impression - without anything appearing to be out of place or not in balance. That alone threw the so called experts into the bin. The painting on immediate impact and long after studying it overall, shows equilibrium and prejudice does what it should not do – find fault at any expense as if the painter was an architectural technician and bound by the same rules. The mammoth David in Florence would not have had such large hands or small genitals as a result - but then, non accomplished, artist critics should not be in the business of evaluation simply because they are unaware of these principles and the last things they should try and downgrade is composition that WORKS. The factor however that throws those banal criticisms out of the window immediately, is the sheer awesomeness of the painting´s immediate impact. Puzzling out the reason for such distinguished master strokes , is not for mortals but for the artist himself. Any intelligent artist knows that just one or a series of strokes can alter the depth of the painting as it tricks the eye. To attempt to discover how it was put together, even by master forgers, is foolishness. This impressive feedback was enough for both the new owner and myself to open up a series of public experiments to determine whether the art world impressions could be conclusive enough to hand it over to the scientific experts. Most of those approached, agreed that only someone very close to El Greco, like a talented apprentice could have possibly known all the factors which surround this extraordinary work.
Recent Studies and Common Agreement.
Recent studies by art lovers and academics have shown without doubt that this masterwork is of importance and just as fascinating even if it were not a genuine EL Greco. During the course of various discussions with heart and soul artists of some repute a few new factors came to light. The period during which EL Greco came to be addressed by the Inquisition and formally tried, was one called the Eucharistic period, according to a modern El Greco writer. This has to do with the question of the turning of the bread into the body and blood of Christ – a fundamental dogma of the Christian Church. There are no paintings by El Greco listed or available to the public or researcher which can be associated with such a concept. In fact, if we are to accept the published essence of the trial, there are no paintings in existence which could have upset the Inquisitor and which contained an Archangel as the main protagonist other than the Icon that head been left behind in Crete and long forgotten. It was not relevant. Clearly, these two paintings about which I am writing, have to be the ones referred to. If so, they are of extreme historical and international importance. They require that the real experts voice their opinions without fear or favor and without the prejudice that they sometimes betray in cases which create too much controversy or put the so called Gods of authentication in conflict with earlier public comments by them.
If these paintings are confiscated Grecos, it would imply as said, that they could both be by the same hand. Taking into account that it has become obvious that he could change styles and approach and that his "identity" style was a deliberate and experimental effort like those of Dali and Picasso. The idea that they could not change their styles for specific customers,is ludicrous, particularly during those periods of Artistic expression. In any case, a move towards more traditional renditions in view of the bad feedback would have been tactical and obliging. Both the unsigned paintings from that cellar point to El Greco if we are to consider the Eucharistic nature of the Crucifixion painting and that they were found together. (The apparition on the altar in front of the Eucharist and Tabernacle with the altar candles is exclusively associated with the transubstantiation miracle known by that name. However, this painting has not been examined properly and the indirect claim is based entirely on subject and circumstances of the find. The uplifted lifeless body of Christ by the Guardian Angel also depicts a moment of transition which could be interpreted in view of the symbols in the painting as the moment of the Eucharist which the Archangel appears to want to transcend urgently. From death to a living body away from the coffin has echoes of that flight to eternal life.
A Period Quoted But Not Visible.
This period mentioned by various writers, does not appear to point in the direction of any of his known paintings which is strange at least. The crucifixion painting (which is not the subject of this study) , was never considered by us to be associated with the master in view of its curious interpretation but a clearer Eucharistical image would be hard to come across. It looks like an artistic creation of a vision similar to that which reputedly took place at Lanciano on the altar table as the result of a physical transubstantiation brought about by consecration . Whether this painting is by El Greco or not is pending the sort of studies that have been applied to the “deposition” by Archangel. The only association, I have - to reiterate - is the Eucharistic theme and the fact that they were of the same subject and stored together.
Finally, getting back to the main painting of the "Deposition" or Pieta,of which this painting is really neither and more of a denial of resurrection or a flight to eternal life.Studies over a long period involving a great deal of published or academically discussed material on El Greco, the revelation of so many coincidences with his mid and earlier works could well be considered a clear indication of not just a dramatic find but an essential work for the establishment of the vehemence of the Inquisitor who saw in it enough material to put his much admired painter on the pyre.I must not be forgotten however, that despite generally held beliefs that there was a trial on which the book and film is based, some critics claim that this did not take place. The painting also says a great deal about this disturbed painter who even dared to question the very figure of the Chief Inquistor himself in his portrait and or perhaps subject him to ridicule. If someone else had dared to paint it around the same time, it would also be curious to note that such damning ideas were never commented on or its closeness to the Original Icon by El Greco. Suffice it to say that despite the published true or false proceedings that nearly brought the hapless Cretan to the scaffolds, there is no painting of the period which could cause the accusation of heresy to be brought against him. Only something like this “apocryphal” painting retrieved from a secret hideout (possibly guarded by the Inquisition Office) could have possibly caused such a diatribe about the nature of Archangels which so angered the confused and almost religiously intoxicated Inquistor. It seems unlikely that peculiar arguments like these can be conjured out of nothing when paintings that fit the insinuations are later found in secret collections. El Greco was obviously acquitted but perhaps the insinuation that the Princess of Venice did have an affair with the artist and did buy the original Icon at whatever cost from him may have also contributed to the acquittal since it is held in the book and film and perhaps other research the producers may have undertaken, that the Princess interceded, having become a nun of some standing and who perhaps may have shown the original Icon to the indignant Inquisitor determined to put her ex lover down as a means of deflecting the real age of the composition and its birth in Crete rther than in Spain. This is pure speculation on my part but then the painting lends itself to the most surprising interpretations but all point to one hand - that of El Greco and not to hid disciple, Luis Tristan..
The Inquisition Mystery and the Missing Evidence.
But was El Greco conscious of the negative criticism his style was producing in the courts of Europe ? Perhaps the second, classical interpretation of the original Icon may have been his retribution for his previous abuse of privilege and sentimental caddishness when he sold it to the Venitian Princess? Or even perhaps a gift for his misgivings to a woman who would appreciate the later style? Again, pure speculation, but interesting as they lie well in the fold of the potentially clear interpretation of events that led to the film.
If so, perhaps The Inquisitor was desperately trying to undermine the argument El Greco was trying to put forward about the nature of the so called “ressurection” and which put the Church version into the fantasy light ? If it is not an El Greco then the awesome painter must be found to determine what this mystery is all about and why a theme within the province and material of a well known painter of the same period was chosen ? Such a pursuit is almost guaranteed to produce nothing from the period but it would perhaps dampen the inexplicable academic tendency to see further than their own somewhat amateurish and banal blatant denials.
What is more astounding however,is the presence of a shroud garlanded closed coffin (or reliquary) seemingly awaiting the interment of the body since no coffin ever existed in any religious painting of the crucifixion. In fact, for a painter to dare paint this in the same context, is bravery enough and it does suggest that perhaps the painter had been told to do so by background elements intent on creating a confrontation with the Church that the painter himself would have never imagined.There is a great deal of evidence that they existed and often prompted great artists to symbolize or insinuate them otherwise. This is quite commonly seen in paintings by the great masters of the Renaissance and often misinterpreted but perhaps it also had to do with the fact that El Greco was beginning to outshine the local artistry and spurned a church which went for static interprations and avoided his. El Greco was disturbed and he once dared to criticize Michelangelo´s work despite opening up dangerous enmity.
Putting incriminating evidence by suggestion in a public work of art is not an altogether difficult hypothesis to assimilate as the great Leonardo once said “ these ideas would seem to destroy one´s faith”.
But there is more, much more which puts this painting at the doorstep of our confused and emotionally unbalanced artist. The very little known and bread and butter work of his early days in Crete and the Icon itself came up in the latest film about his life which appeared to have been sold for more than it was worth to a Venetian Princess. Unsubstantiated perhaps but he does appear to have got him thrown out of Venice by her indignant and powerful brothers. (the film was based on a book on the subject of the life of El Greco and it appear that very deep research was needed which the filmmakers considered to be essential for the film to be credible. It may be poetic license but the Icon is in Venice and it spent most of its life tucked away in palatial quarters. It is the very base of existence of the painting under study here and there is no mistaking the identical copy of arms, hands, feet and mirror inverse posture. The main Angel himself is an almost exact copy including facially and does not appear in any other painting by the Master. To make it clear, whoever painted the "deposition" with the Angel, utilized (and had to utilize) the Icon as a base. No first painting – no second possible. The painting is of course a much more elevated effort and contains all the characteristic features of EL Greco´s original deposition Icon which can be called an angelic "Pieta" which is before the burial in the absence of the second one. There is no coffin or symbolic indicators in this one to deny a bodily assumption into Heaven. Without a coffin to indicate a very human burial,there is no case for the prosecution. The anomalous toes sign and indicate El Greco´s favourite "symbolic" gestures which defy understanding so badly are they always painted by him. This element was perhaps a sign of disdain for these human extremities or perhaps of a personal criticism if indeed he was painting his own feet. It is said that he walked with a limp. Maybe he had a clubbed foot ? Whatever, nobody who copied the Icon who was not El Greco himself would have dared to copy such badly painted feet without public outcry at the cynical act. Why El Greco or his so called critics have never tackeld this issue is not just a mystery but an obvious indication of lack of perspicacity or even capacity to see clearly.
A Virulent Anarchist
What is absolutely incredible is that this suspiciously Greco painting can be assumed to have been carried out in Spain around the early 17th.or late 16th century but has never been mentioned or apparently shown in public where the subject matter and treatment would have immediately aroused a great deal of controversy - if not outright condemnation. But perhaps it was meant as a very private and formal replacement for the much criticized sale to the "Venetian Princess" if the film has stuck to real events. It would explain why El Greco wanted to show his critics and particularly his old persecutors in Venice that he could paint like Tintorreto if he wanted to or in the style of any of the great men of the period.
El Greco definitely had a personality problem but at heart was a mystic with a very high level of intelligence. This was reflected in what we now appreciate in his tremendous capacity to visualize form and expression in much the same way as others (jeered at the time), who also broke the traditional pattern of presentation to carry the message and impact across and in such a uniquely different way. El Greco did it with practically every device in his command – personally mixed shades of unusual colours and a stylized elongation which was meant to do what it did - bring spiritual aspiration into form to complete the elevation that this symbolic elegance depicted and conveyed - a touch of which can be seen in Gainsborough portraiture. All this is in the second attempt and not at all in the Icon. However, If it was not El Greco who painted it, then it was intended to downgrade him, leaving a huge question mark as to why the Church did not pursue the supposed painter instead. It still does not explain why despite the elevation of everything else, the disgusting feet were allowed to cloud the finishing touches.
It has to be reapeted that it needs no ecclesiastical training to know that the painting is religiously offensive although it represents a spirituality and awesome silence that the very Angel with feminine beauty radiates apprehensivel in an anguished attempt to raise his Master away from that awful place. Perhaps the coffin is part of that death concept that the dead Christ, now free of pain and suffering will not form a part of and will also be left behind. Whatever the painter had in mind, is still locked in the Icon and El Greco himself but it points to the secret of an earthly grave which many secret organisatins have hinted at and which the painting may well be refuting in some strange and indirect way.
Only a very intimate and artistically talented member of his family or team could have possibly painted it. Nobody else, even with sight of the Icon would have even wanted to bother to paint something in the lifetime of a very aggressive painter who would use any instrument against anybody who dared to demean him. His recently discovered Icon of the Dormition of the Virgen actually has Jesus holding a child over her body ! What all this means is not just astounding but proves how such apocryphal material of such import can go unnoticed by the so called "cognoscenti". It shows just how bitter and anti established church scenarios he actually was. It also illustrates just how remarkable his escape from the clutches of the Inquisition (if ineed it took place) - even after mocking the fiercely evil Grand Inquisitor with his ridiculous portrait.
If Not Him Then Who Was This Confidante ?
The huge question is – If anyone else did it and produced a much better version of a classical nature of the period, then why did the public and or critics not refer to the Icon if they suspected it was a malicious reinvention ? Would any painter of any worth have dared to suggest that it was his own original composition in the same period and without influence of any sort? Of course not ! Where is the public running commentary about it ? Would the Spaniards not have picked it up to slate a foreign painter who was fast becoming (and indeed became eventually), the most prodigious painter of the millennium? Its age is indisputable, the Geso under the paint which the artist utilized is there for anyone to see and the colours now covered by old varnish or darkened glazes, can be seen in sunlight and correspond to those unique shades which the master utilized in other paintings. Whatever scenario could possibly be utilized to convince anyone that the painting is a NOT by El Greco would need to establish a variety of irreconcilable factors which have never been and cannot be produced. To quote the discoverer of the Dormition signed by El Greco “ I could not believe my eyes as I read the signature and had to prevent myself from reading it aloud for fear of putting it in danger!” It goes to show just vested interests can even endanger the very things they should be protecting for the people and not for the trade.
Heaven knows how many vitally important works have not survived recognition for the same reason...
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--------------------------------------------------- The writer Michael Mifsud Canilla started his writing career in the House of Commons, Westminster as a Commonwealth correspondent at the age of 16. He moved and pioneered in public relations and publishing creating the Chauffeuring Profession with his academy and flooding the market with his acclaimed trainees.He published the first trade journal for drivers which earned him the coveted back page of "Campaign". He travelled with the British Royals all over the world as a correspondent and incited the Commonwealth through the Press Union to take an interest in the valuable work the Queen and Prince Philip were doing in this respect. He published a very popular book called Al Andalus - A Trail of Discoveries and is now a successful businessman with a few more innovations under his belt. He will retire to London very soon.
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