"The greatest Mannerist of them all is the Spanish painter El Greco (Domenicos Theotokopoulos, 1541-1614, called "El Greco" because he was born in Crete). His artistic roots are diverse: he traveled between Venice, Rome, and Spain (settling in Toledo). The Christian doctrines of Spain made a crucial impact on his approach to painting, and his art represents a blend of passion and restraint, religious fervor and Neo-Platonism, influenced by the mysticism of the Counter-Reformation.
"El Greco's elongated figures, ever straining upward, his intense and unusual colors, his passionate involvement in his subject, his ardor and his energy, all combine to create a style that is wholly distinct and individual. He is the great fuser, and also the transfuser, setting the stamp of his angular intensity upon all that he creates. To the legacies of Venice, Florence, and Siena, he added that of the Byzantine tradition, not necessarily in form but in spirit (although he did in fact train as an icon painter in his early years in Crete). El Greco always produces icons, and it is this interior gravity of spirit that gives his odd distortions a sacred rightness.
"The Madonna and Child with St. Martina and St. Agnes sweeps us up from our natural animal level, there at the bottom with St. Martina's pensive lion and St. Agnes's lamb, balancing with unnatural poise on the branch of her arm. Martina's palm of martyrdom acts like a signal, as do the long, impossibly slender fingers of Agnes.
"We are drawn irresistibly up, past the flutter of cherubic wing and the rich swirl of virginal robe, kept to the pictorial center by those strangely papery or sheetlike clouds peculiar to El Greco. Up, up, rising through the curve of Mary's cloak, we are drawn to the heart of the work, the Child and, above Him, the oval serenity of the Madonna's countenance. We are continually on the move, but never left to our own devices. We are guided and directed by El Greco, with praying figures at the corners to hold us in the right position."
Oil on canvas
191 x 152 cm
Sacristy of the Cathedral of Palencia
"Such a dramatic and insistent art can seem too obtrusive: we may long to be left to ourselves. But this psychic control is essential to El Greco, the great - in the nicest sense - manipulator. Even when we cannot really understand the picture, as in theLaocoön, we have no doubt that something portentous is taking place and that we are diminished to the extent we cannot participate. The literal reference to the Trojan priest and his sons is clear enough. But who are the naked women, one of whom seems to be double-headed? Even if the extra head is indicative of the work being unfinished, it is still uncannily apposite. The Laocoön was overpainted after El Greco's death, and the "second head" that looks into the painting was obliterated, while the two standing frontal nudes were given loincloths. Later, these features were restored to the form that we see now.
"The serpents seem oddly ineffectual, thin and meager; we wonder why these muscular males have such trouble overcoming them. And we feel that this is an allegory more than a straightforward story, that we are watching evil and temptation at work on the unprotected bodies of mankind. Even the rocks are materially unconvincing, made of the same non-substance as the high and clouded sky.
"The less we understand, the more we are held enthralled by this work. It is the implicit meaning that always matters most in El Greco, that which he conveys by manner rather than by substance, gleaming with an unearthly light that we still, despite the unresolved mysteries, do not feel to be alien to us. No other of the great Mannerists carried manner to such height or with such consistency as El Greco."