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Tradition and Originality in El Greco’s Work: His Synthesis of Byzantine and Renaissance Conceptions of Art

Tradition and Originality in El Greco’s Work: His Synthesis of Byzantine and Renaissance Conceptions of Art

By Richard G. Mann

Quidditas, Vol.23 (2002)

Introduction: Domenicos Theotokopoulos (1541–1614), usually called El Greco, had one of the most unusual “career paths” of any artist of his era. In less than a decade, he transformed himself from a Byzantine icon painter into one of the most innovative artists of the western European Renaissance. His Spanish contemporaries had no difficulty in acknowledging the significance of his origins. Thus, the court poet Paravicino declared “Creta le dió la vida y los pinceles” (Crete gave him life and the painter’s craft). Nevertheless, most North American and western European scholars of the modern era have maintained that his initial experiences as an icon painter had little relevance to the later phases of his career, and they have characterized his mature work as a deliberate and thorough “break” with his origins. It cannot be denied that El Greco radically transformed both his working methods and the character of his art during his years in Italy (1568–77). Yet, there are no good reasons to suppose that his evident fascination with Italian art impelled him to reject his origins. In opposition to the prevalent analysis of El Greco exclusively within the categories of western European art, some scholars have sought to interpret the paintings of his Spanish years primarily by reference to Byzantine art and culture. Given the character of the dominant scholarship on the artist, it perhaps is not surprising that many advocates of this position have tended to overlook other sources for his mature work. Nevertheless, I think it is essential that we develop an understanding of the artist that acknowledges his diverse experiences.

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