El Greco to Velázquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III
Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University
Through Nov. 9

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that realityjudiciously, as you willwe’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do. A Bush aide quoted in “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush” by Ron Suskind, The New York Times, Oct. 17, 2004

Modern historians have defined these views as “messianic imperialism,” signifying that Spanish monarchs believed, as Philip II certainly did, that they had a preeminent role in world politics, because they had been selected by God to unify the world under the aegis of Spain and the Catholic Church. Antonio Feros, “Art and Spanish Society: The Historical Context, 1577-1623,” from the exhibition catalog for El Greco to Velázquez

El Greco to Velázquez is housed at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke in two separate pavilion spaces that begin with the religious and shift into the secular in richly color-coded rooms that seem to hum with intention. The exhibition is the culmination of more than 20 years of research by Sarah Schroth, whose breakthrough discovery of inventories belonging to Philip III’s “favorite,” the Duke of Lerma, precipitated a new way of seeing Philip III’s reign (1598-1621), which heretofore had been cast as a kind of decadent and culturally stagnant placeholder between the reigns of his father, Philip II, and his son, Philip IV.

Schroth’s research and insights initiate a historical reframing of Spain’s Golden Age, clarifying the context of its artistic giants (El Greco, Velázquez) and rethinking the significance of many lesser-known artists, such as Eugenio Cajés, Francisco Ribalta, Juan Sanchez Cotán and others.

El Greco to Velázquez was, for me, both exhilarating and anxiety provokingexhilarating in its capacity to generate powerful emotions, and anxiety-provoking in some of its scholars’ surprisingly complicit relationship with their subject.

Upon entering the first pavilion we encounter the startling, exuberant clarion call of El Greco’s apocalyptic “The Vision of St. John” (1608-14). We are witness to El Greco’s biblical narrative and to the artist’s uncanny modernity, the influence of which persisted even centuries later in artists from Courbet to Picasso and Cezanne. El Greco’s active painting style is felt throughout the compositionfigures rise up to the heavens, outstretched hands forging a contrapuntal feeling of rhythm. The atmosphere of the sky registers an otherworldly weather, a sculptural tumult in a swirl of earth tones and celestial blues.

The exhibition unfolds fluidly, through the dazzling spectrum of styles that flourished simultaneously during this period, from a radiant quartet of interpretations of the Immaculate Virgin to a grouping of heart-wrenching martyr scenes and luminous depictions of miraculous events. The second pavilion brings us a kaleidoscopic array of portraiture styles, before the scale shifts to an intimate, imaginative recreation of Lerma’s camarin (“little room”) of world treasures. The exhibition concludes with a selection of still lifes and bodegóns (“tavern pictures”) that serve as a sequential shift from on high back down to earth.

It is easy to wander through a museum gallery and gaze upon an exhibition like this and respond to the works solely as objects of art. This is of course a valid way to see them. But it is worth keeping in mind that, situated in a North Carolina museum in the 21st century, they have been decontextualized. Most of the works on view in El Greco to Velázquez were created to serve very specific functions. They were products of an image-making machinery, designed to shape perception, to reinforce paradigms, to construct new realities.

The royal portraits functioned as symbolic manifestations of power and grandeur. Check out Juan Pantoja de la Cruz’s “King Philip III of Spain,” in which the impassive young king, bedecked in gilt ceremonial armor, pulls back a heavy velvet curtain to reveal a warring militia on the grounds below. This intricate, masterful painting served a vehement purpose, to articulate royal authority and to instill awe. The king, himself the focal point of the piece, is also literally showing the viewer where to look, through his own window onto his own domain of power and control.

The ecclesiastical works, too, served their own function, to fill the viewer with emotions that would be transferred to adherence to Catholic Church doctrine. In the exhibition catalog, Rosemarie Mulcahy quotes Fray José de Sigüenza describing a painting by Juan de Roelas: “Whoever looks at such a vivid presentation and is not heartbroken, and does not dissolve in tears and ponder the gravity of his sins, must be harder than the marble to which this meek, humble and most obedient lamb is tied.” This level of emotional connection to the Church is the foundation upon which its power structure is built. Artworks that could compel such a response were essential toward that end, and both church and state, virtually indivisible at this time, were equally invested in these messages.

Works such as these engage us on many levels. It strikes me that one of the reasons these artworks speak so directly to us is their capacity to tap into primal human impulses, and I mean that in the most Freudian sensethe fascination with sex and death. It is astonishing to consider how the depiction of sex and violence so effectively and consistently grips the human psyche. It grips us now; it gripped us then.

A case in point is the lavish intimacy of Francisco Ribalta’s “Saint Francis Embracing the Crucified Christ” (about 1620). The painting could not be more direct in communicating the notion of a personal relationship with Christ. Here St. Francis wraps his arms around a bleeding, barely clad, crucified Christ figure, whose bloody, impaled hand holds a crown of thorns as a halo above St. Francis’ head. This painting, at least to my eye, is an image of desire. Everything in the composition posits the Christ figure as the endpoint, the ultimate. The figures around him look toward him with awe and longing. St. Francis’ body language, his literal embrace of Christ, and the look of total devotion on his face, eyes closed, mouth poised directly under a gushing wound, is the picture of infinite desire, one that’s been fulfilled and one that endures.

Madison Avenue, Hollywood, Washington, D.C., the Vaticaneach of these nodal points constitutes a bastion of power and image control. From a 17th-century Spanish church altar painting to a contemporary billboard towering over the Sunset Strip, we find a continuum that speaks to a history of image-making, the generating of iconographic visual statements designed to elicit specific responses, to impact the psyche of the viewer in order to manipulate and control his or her relationship to that image and to the power structures it supports. While we can use our intellect to separate ourselves from the raw emotional power of these images, we simply are not immune. Who hasn’t at one time or another been inexplicably moved by a sappy love song (in the form of a commercial jingle) or perhaps voting for a candidate for reasons more personal than we’d care to admit?

The question of emotional distance emerges in some of the writing associated with El Greco to Velázquez. Mulcahy, in discussing Juan Martinez Montañés’ sculpture, “Christ of Clemency,” concludes: “In fact, the expression on Christ’s face is one of compassion. The image works as a vehicle for intimate conversation between the sinner and Christ; one might even say that the sculpture achieves its potential only when it fulfills this devotional function.” Stating that the compassionate expression of the Christ figure’s face is a point of fact is a fairly arch position to take in the discussion of an inherently subjective form. Further, the idea that the viewer is a de facto “sinner” raises some questions. And suggesting that the only way for the work to achieve its potential is to generate “intimate conversation” between Jesus Christ and the viewer/ sinner certainly comes across as a wholesale religious statement rather than an art-historical one.

In discussing Vicente Carducho’s “The Stigmatization of Saint Francis” (no date given), Schroth asserts that “Carducho’s image perfectly communicates the now accepted belief in the possibility of a private relationship with God.” The ambiguity of this assertion is problematic. Who accepts this belief? Believers? Such language suggests a veneration of the religious ideals embodied in these artworks, casting some of the catalog texts as a subset of the ecclesiastical objects they describe.

These two writers independently speak of the undisputed piety of the two rulers of Spain during this period. Schroth: “There can be no question that the Duke of Lerma was a very pious man.” Mulcahy: “Of [Philip III’s] piety there can be little doubt.” These references to piety would seem to indicate some level of virtue, and yet piety as attributed to Philip III and the Duke of Lerma seems to have manifested primarily in acts of patronage, in funding the construction and development of churches and monastic institutions. And inasmuch as there was at that time virtually no differentiation between church and state, it would seem that these acts of patronage were simply strategies designed to cultivate and extend the grids of their own power.

A dark subtext of the splendor and magnificence framed by El Greco to Velázquez is the human price that was paid to support this cultural and religious flowering. The catalog describes these injustices and yet somehow manages to acutely minimize acts of persecution and genocide. Antonio Feros writes, “The Inquisition and other institutions promoted social peace by suppressing the religious diversity and dissent that created civil and military conflict elsewhere in Western Europe.” When Feros refers to “social peace,” he’s talking about a peaceful time for Christians exclusively, and for that matter only Christians who were somehow able to prove they were of “pure blood.” It’s a subtle point, easy to miss, but the social peace that Feros refers to existed for a specific group at the expense of others.

Schroth writes: “It is a paradox, therefore, that while society offered new possibilities to artists in Spain, artists also suffered under the hierarchical structure of Spanish society, which, according to Bernard Vincent had ‘never been more exclusive.’ There was an obsession with … proving limpieza de sangre (clean blood, without taint of Jewish or Moorish ancestry, and with no family ties to a New Christian, a converso, or a morisco).”

That’s no minor paradox. Up until this time in Spainduring the previous centurymoriscos (Muslims who had converted to Catholicism) had lived in relative peace, continuing to observe the old rituals of Islam. Conversos (Jews who had become Catholics) had been similarly tolerated. However, under Philip III this would change radically. Archbishop Juan de Ribera was able to convince the king and Lerma that drastic measures were needed. Schroth writes: “It was definitely the one black mark on the otherwise holy career of Juan de Ribera (beatified in 1796, canonized in 1960). Three hundred thousand moriscos were forced to leave for France and North Africa; 10,000 to 12,000 lost their lives resisting expulsion.”

How can such behavior be termed “one black mark” on an “otherwise holy career”? And the phrase “lost their lives” is understatement in the extreme. These people didn’t passively lose their lives; they were massacred when they refused to leave their homes. And Ribera was canonized? For me, asides like these undermine the exhibition. The stain of oppression and genocide cannot be so easily washed away, even in the brilliant light of “two of the greatest painters in history.” (For the record, Velázquez has been shown to come from a converso lineage, and while El Grecoformally Doménicos Theotokópouloswas officially Roman Catholic, there is now speculation that he never fully severed his ties with his Greek Orthodox roots.)

The collective imagination of early 17th-century Spain was captured by mystics like Teresa of Avila, a 16th-century Carmelite nun whose writings were wildly popular. Setting forth first-person descriptions of the experience of rapture, Teresa’s words were captivating: “You see and feel it as a cloud, or a strong eagle rising upwards, and carrying you away on its wings.” Schroth points out, “Perhaps because the mystical movement that spread over the rest of Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries bypassed Spain, that country’s first experience with mysticism was expressed in the emotional intensity often achieved by painters and sculptors of this time.”

Vincente Carducho’s “The Stigmatization of St. Francis” was found by Schroth hanging in the cloister courtyard of a hospital in Madrid. This simple but deeply affecting painting echoes St. Teresa’s ethos that individuals can personally communicate with the divine. Here, St. Francis, airborne, encounters the angelic Christ figure in midair. The two figures are given parity in this composition; they convey a symmetry; it’s an image that speaks of plain, direct access to spirit. The painting embodies the idea of communion, of the capacity of a human being to connect with something beautiful, something that is greater than oneself. The painting is shatteringly intimate and vulnerable, and its large scale envelopes the viewer into the scene as a participant. We as viewers are positioned to mirror the third figure in the painting who, also earthbound, looks upward at this sacred encounter in awe. I am in no position to judge this painting, because I am completely undone by emotion in viewing it.

How, then, to reconcile the impact of this and other such works of art and the dark framework of their making? I can only say that living within the contradictions of a profound hypocrisy is something each of us does in this country every day. Perhaps it’s part of the human condition. All we can do is keep our eyes open and ask questions. El Greco to Velázquez answers some questions and raises many more. See the show, read the catalogand let me know what you think in the comments section of this article’s online edition. As exciting and important as this exhibition is, I can’t simply, as the press materials quote from Time magazine, call it “wonderful.”