"The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete"

By Milliner, Matthew J. | New Criterion, January 2010 | Go to article overview

"The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete"


Milliner, Matthew J., New Criterion


"The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete"

The Onassis Center, New York.

November 17, 2009-February 27, 2010

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.

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