El Greco, beyond reality

Dominikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco), Saint Martin and the poor, 1597/99, Oil on canvas, 193×203 cm, Washington, National Gallery of Art

Dominikos Theotokopoulos was born in Crete in 1541, hence his nickname. After a stay in Italy where he did not really find his place, he settled in Spain, first in Madrid, then very quickly in Toledo where he remained until his death in 1614. It was there that he received the commission for this painting to decorate the chapel of San José in Toledo.

This chapel is a private oratory and was founded by a wealthy Toledo merchant, Martin Ramirez, who died in 1569. The chapel was eventually built by his heirs, who commissioned its interior decoration from Greco in 1597. It has three altarpieces: on the central altar, an altarpiece representing St. Joseph and Christ the Child, surmounted by the Coronation of the Virgin, and on the side altars, a Virgin surrounded by St. Martína and St. Agnes, and an altarpiece dedicated to St. Martin, patron saint of the chapel’s founder. In 1907, the owner decided to sell the paintings on the side altars, which were eventually acquired by the National Gallery in Washington.

The painting we are interested in represents the Charity of Saint Martin. Martin is a 4th century Roman soldier. While he is in garrison near Amiens, he gives half of his coat to a poor, cold-blooded man. The following night, Christ appears to him in a dream, dressed in the same cloak. Interpreting the dream as a call, Martin decides to convert and later becomes bishop of Tours. It is this episode of his life that is most often depicted.

Saint Martin sharing his coat, Facade of the cathedral Saint-Pierre of Angoulême (France)

It is this episode that Greco chose for his altarpiece. But instead of situating the action in the fourth century, he modernised the scene. Martin is dressed in Renaissance armour and the scene of the action is not in Amiens but in Toledo, which can be seen in the background.

The horseman and his horse occupy almost the entire space of the painting, which gives them a monumental appearance. This aspect is reinforced by a view from below and a very low horizon line. The horse, with its front leg raised, seems to want to project itself into the space of the viewer. There is almost no perspective; the view is blocked by the monumentality of the rider and the blue background. The colours are pure and luminous. Stuck on the left side, the figure of the beggar is exaggeratedly elongated with very stretched limbs. This deformation perhaps suggests that he is not of this world and that it is a vision.

For the figure of the horse, Greco was inspired by a painting by Pordenone depicting St. Martin, which he saw during his stay in Venice from 1568 to 1570.

Pordenone, Saint Martin and saint Christophe,1528/29, Oil on wood, 250×140 cm, Venice, San Rocco church

Even if the subject is not very common in painting, Greco is not the first to represent the Charity of Saint Martin. Before him, for example, Simone Martini or Jean Fouquet had already treated the subject.

Simone Martini, Saint Martin sharing his coat, C. 1315, Fresco, Assisi, lower basilica of San Francesco
Jean Fouquet, saint Martin sharing his coat, 1452/61, Paris, musée du Louvre

Like Greco, Martini and Fouquet had put the stage back in their own time. But for these two painters, the subject was a pretext for testing new representations of space (the hollowed-out space in Martini’s work or the oblique perspective with two vanishing points in Fouquet’s work) and above all to focus on the anecdotal and realistic aspects of the scene, especially in Fouquet’s work. The beggar is dressed in rags, the city is accurately depicted and the knight’s costumes. The idea is for the story to be credible, for the scene to look « real ».

Greco is not interested in the reality of the scene. Apart from the knight’s armour, there is not much realistic in the painting. There is no convincing perspective. The scene takes place in an unreal space. The colours appear supernatural, as does the light, whose source is not visible. The naked and very elongated body of the beggar is not realistic. And although there is a view of Toledo in the background, it is allusive to say the least and is not a topographical survey. El Greco is the opposite of an anecdote, of a story to be told. What it shows is an ideal. What he seeks is to suggest the announcement of an apparition and a conversion, to render Martin’s greatness of soul and the divine grace that descends upon him.

Quickly forgotten after his death, the unrealism of El Greco’s painting will again seduce painters from the 19th century onwards, especially the young Pablo Picasso who will remember the painter, in the MOMA’s canvas, in the stretching of the naked figure and the relationship between man and horse.

Pablo Picasso, Young boy with horse, 1905/06, Oil on canvas, 220×130 cm, New-York, Museum of Modern Art

With this work, Greco takes us beyond reality and appearances, in search of pure emotion.

And you, what do you think about it ?

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