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El Greco, View of Toledo, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Witness Post: El Greco in Toledo

The dark and dusty picture hung in the poorly lit first floor hallway of Wheeler Hall at Loyola Blakefield in Towson, Maryland.  As a freshman roaming the corridors, I spotted the painting and paused to examine the dreary hillside.  In black letters on a gold name plate, it was marked View of Toledo.  Taking in the landscape and sky, the scene felt so ominous.  I could imagine the haunting voice of Vincent Price, as he narrated a post-death burial scene: “men digging graves on the barren hillsides, gravestones chiseled from granite and ready to be set, the black dressed mourners gathering…”

The light streaking through the clouds was overwhelmed by an approaching storm, so although there are luminous rays of hope, it felt more like impending isolation and cold.  There was almost a “nightfall” feeling to the landscape, which kind of “creeped me out” as a high schooler.  Long before the days of Harry Potter and Hogwarts, this walled city had a castle on a hill, a spooky church steeple, a majestic waterfall, lush green trees and an amazingly eerie sky.  El Greco needed some serious anti-depressants.

Fast forward a decade and my sister, Nancy, was studying in Seville, Spain, for her junior year abroad.  I made plans to visit her and flew from Dullas to Madrid-Barajas Airport.  Speaking no Spanish, I was dependent on Nancy for communication, directions, currency, transportation … the works.

I was really upset when I called Nancy from the Madrid airport and she lamented, “Sorry about this, Hank, but the school term got all screwed up … I have some papers to finish up and an exam to take tomorrow … Can you hang out in Madrid for a few days, maybe three, and then take the train down to meet me in Seville?”  Still pissed, I took a deep breath and begrudgingly said, “OK, Yeah, Sis, BUT I don’t speak the language!” Nancy said not to worry.

Unconvinced by her self-assurances, she added, “Just try your creaky French and waved your hands a lot, and you will be fine.” I felt panicked.  Sensing my anxiety she said, “Besides, you can always buy an English/Spanish dictionary.” Having no idea if I would be able to communicate, what were my alternatives?  So I quickly buried my anxiety and made plans to settle in and enjoy Madrid for the next few days.

First stop?  The Prado.

The Prado

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Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain

The Museo Nacional del Prado is, to me, one of the great museums of Western Europe.  I have not been to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg or some of the other most esteemed world museums, but compared with my short list (the Metropolitan, the Louvre, the British Museum, the Rijksmuseum and the National Gallery), I like the Prado the best.  Why?  Two reasons: I found it approachable and I had time.

Standing in front of the original El Greco paintings, and those by Ribera, Velazquez, Titian, Goya, Rubens and Bosch was thrilling for me.  I had never been that close to these masterpieces and I studied them.  The Michelin Guide was some help, but there is nothing like uninterrupted time just looking.  I had heard the names of these artists before, but the luxury of moving among them at an unhurried pace was pure delight.  I had much to see and to learn. With the museum closing a few hours after getting there, I vowed to return early the next day to see the thousand other masterpieces.

I wandered off to the youth hostel, making plans and financial arrangements to stay there for the next two nights.  As I ate dinner and read my Guidebook, I considered visiting El Escorial, where the King’s family had lived.  The train times were not convenient, however, and the taxi’s were expensive, so I planned to forgo the King’s castle and spend the next day at the Museo del Prado.

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Arriving bright and early, just as the museum doors opened, I got lost in the 7,500 paintings, 8,000 drawings and 1,000 sculptures from Western Europe.  The day proved an immersion course in 17th, 18th and 19th century European art. I stood for many minutes in front of one painting by El Greco, his portrait of St. Bernardino of Siena (1603). It had the long lines and typical attenuated figures, so distinctive and identifiable as El Greco.  What struck me was the smallness of the saint’s face relative to the size of his robe.  Bernardino was one of the most celebrated preachers of the fifteenth century.  My eyes focused on his billowing brown cloak and the sun-breaking blue-gray sky.

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Researching  St. Bernardino back home, I found two stories that were particularly interesting.  St. Bernardino fashioned a placard as a visual aid with the lettering JHS topped with a cross and surrounded by sunbeams.  It was a Latin translation of the Greek letters abbreviating the name of Jesus: Iesous Christos.  Jesus the Savior of Men becomes “Jesus Hominum Salvator” in Latin, hence the JHS monogram.  I thought the J was the Letter I, but now I know — it could be either letter.

The other story is that Bernardino condemned gambling, which bankrupted a man whose livelihood was printing playing cards.  The printer, in an ironic twist, seized the JHS symbol and made a fortune peddling a line of Holy Cards with the JHS emblazoned on them.

One of the most famous paintings in the Prado is Diego Velazquez’s, Las Meninas.  The Guidebook says that, outside of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, Las Meninas is the most celebrated portrait using multiple perspectives.  I stood in front of the painting while one of the English speaking tour guides gave her docent-best version of why this portrait is so famous.  I was even more impressed with the story of the family and the artistry of Velazquez, who painted himself into the left side of the portrait.  It is truly enchanting.

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Velazquez’s, Las Meninas

Toledo

Two days later I took the train to Toledo.  My plan was to ease down south, see some sights and arrive in Seville just as Nancy was finishing her last papers.  Then we could catch the train to Portugal and the rest of the Iberian Peninsula. That plan meant I would spend one night in Toledo, then re-boarded the train for a day trip to Cordoba before arriving in Seville.  Out of Madrid the ride to Toledo was first class, which was quiet and comfortable.  Men and women in suits were reading the paper and sipping coffee in the air-conditioned rail cars.

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The stop in Toledo was very striking from the first step.  As I walked away from the train station, I looked across the river and there was that city on the hill.  I re-imagined the view of the ancient city again in my mind’s eye on the dark walls of Loyola High School.  The view was nearly identical to the picture El Greco had painted, except there were some pedestrians and cars and more buildings in the cityscape.  Amazingly, the weather was threatening, just as it had been in the haunting historical landscape.  It must be some sort of sign.  Then I read in my Guidebook that Toledo was the capital city of the Spanish Inquisition.  Some pieces fell into place, and I laughed, as I could hear that trio from Monty Python shouting, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”

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A nice pension was steps away from the train station and was I able to muddle through with the landlady using my French/Spanglish and looking up the occasional word in an English/Spanish dictionary. The Guidebook suggested that tourists take the “El Greco Tour,” which I took by foot.

In Toledo the natives know that El Greco was not Greek, but from Crete.  His birth name was born Doménikos Theotokópoulos, which is a mouthful, so he was affectionately nicknamed “The Greek.”  He was born in 1541 and died in 1614.  During that time Crete was under the governmental and artistic influence of Venice, Italy, rather than Greece so he was brought up as a painter, sculptor, and architect in the Venetian tradition.  He was trained as an artist in Crete, Rome and Spain. When El Greco moved to Toledo Spain in 1577, his work became part of what is called the Spanish Renaissance.  He completed his first Spanish commission, nine paintings for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo which, although not all displayed in Spain, are beautiful.

One of El Greco’s other haunting portraits is of The Holy Trinity.  The long attenuated fingers and hands and faces are a signature of this great artist, but I find them more scary than illustrative.  The bloodless body of Christ and the skin tone definitely say DEATH.  The images of the dove, angels and cherubs do not soften it.

elgreco 9   The Holy Trinity by El Greco

I walked through the entire hilltop city of Toledo, saw all of the churches and galleries, and ate a great tapas lunch. At the end of the day I was pretty worn out.  It was a good day.  Still suffering from some jet lag, I went to bed early to try to sleep it off.

Cordoba

The next day I caught the train to Cordoba and immediately realized that I was definitely riding in coach.  Gone were the fancy club cars and the air-conditioning and the beautiful people sipping tea and reading the newspaper.  Throw down the windows, make room for the fat old lady, smell the sweat, and go native.  It was a long, hot ride to the city of Cordoba, but I wanted to go see the famous mosque.  I did not to worry too much about the rough ride.  I exited the train and wandered into town.

The Mosque in Cordoba was a real surprise.  The outside was lovely, but it did not give the impression that anything unusual was inside.  When the doors opened, however, the red and white paint on the columns caught my attention. It looked fresh and festive. I could not believe that this mosque was a vestige of the years when the Moors had conquered and ruled the Iberian Peninsula.

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As my eyes adjusted to the light , the inside of the Mosque became mesmerizing.  The shafts of afternoon light came streaming down from the tall windows and I could see particles of dust as they floated in the air around the red and white columns.  It was marvelously cool inside too, which helped dry some of my perspiration. The mosque was nearly empty when I arrived, but a few people scurried about, trying to get the best pictures of this remarkable Moorish temple.  It looked like a candy cane on steroids, as if Dr. Seuss had been its architect long ago.

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There are a few great stories about Nancy’s and my trip together in Spain and Portugal that I will share those in another Witness Post.  For now I want to thank Nancy for her belief in me that I could do it: I could make it from Madrid to Seville without a hitch.

Seville

Was it a flawless trip? Of course not.  But, if I had not been challenged by it, I would have missed the Prado, the trip to Toledo and Cordoba.  I would have missed getting to know El Greco better in the cities where he had plied his craft.  But mostly I would have missed some great experiences and stories of my time with Nancy.  Spain also forced us to slow down.  There is nothing more relaxing to me than being forced to move at a different pace, to pause, look around, and see the wonders that God has in store for us.  That gift is a true blessing.

Thank you, Nancy.  I love you.

New York

In June, 2012 I went to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City with Margaret, Tracy and Barbara Ipsaro and saw the original View of Toledo.  Over thirty years after I had been to the city in Spain, and over 45 years after seeing the print in my high school, there I was in front of the real McCoy.  Pretty cool.

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I did not have any of the high school ghoulish feelings, because we were headed into the Alexander McQueen exhibit, which was enough to turn my head 360 degrees.  No additional weirdness was needed.  El Greco may need anti-depressants, but I am too late to prescribe anything for McQueen.  Wow, what a fantastical imagination!

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Alexander McQueen Exhibit at the MET

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