CITY ON A HILL
 
EL GRECO, VIEW OF TOLEDO, ca.1597
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
 
 
    As I look at El Greco’s View of Toledo, I think of the first line of dialogue in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: ' "And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth." '1

    El Greco doesn’t intend to terrify us. After four hundred years his exact intentions are, of course, unknowable, but we can say with near certainty that he did not paint this vision of his adopted hometown, a place where he found his greatest artistic and financial success, in order to invoke in the viewer a feeling of terror. Toledo was (relatively) good to El Greco, and the painter almost certainly intended to return the favor. So what happened? Why did he produce such a strange, unsettling painting that calls to mind a host of adjectives, none of them particularly favorable to the city: eerie, spooky, haunting, Gothic, forbidding, scary, weird...It’s a poster for a Vincent Price movie, a postcard from a horror show hell. Why so dark? If El Greco wanted to paint a tribute to the city, he could have set it in full sunlight rather than the odd, indescribable light that emanates from this canvas. Compared to Vermeer’s View of Delft (this painting’s antithesis in so many ways), with its beautiful evocation of sunlight on a city, El Greco’s work seems positively nocturnal, as if suddenly illuminated by a lightning flash.

    ‘Lightning’ is a word that often comes to mind with El Greco: lightning bolt-shaped highlights on drapery; the contours of clouds illuminated like streaks of lightning. Lightning-like flashes and sparks seem for this painter a sign of the divinity that infuses all things. Like Gerard Manley Hopkins (why does so much Spanish painting make me reach for Hopkins?), El Greco could say: "The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil..."2 I remember driving one night through a midwestern thunderstorm. All was blackness except for the twin cones of my headlights slashed by rain. Suddenly a flash of lightning lit up the landscape, and for the briefest second I could see everything: farmhouses; barns; distant trees; muddy, rolling fields. The most minute details seemed magically visible–a crack in a window pane, the spiky contour of a tree limb that had not yet sprouted its spring leaves–and the whole was cast in the silver-gray tones of an old movie. But before I could consciously comprehend any of this, everything went black again and a roar of thunder shook the sky. That’s the quality of light I find in the View of Toledo: the light of epiphany, a vision that reveals more than would be seen in full sunlight. It flashes out unexpectedly, shows us the world for a second, and is lost.

    And yet, incredibly, the View of Toledo is a daytime scene. I want to underline this point because it is diametrically opposed to the whole dark and stormy mood of the piece. Art historian Jonathan Brown writes, "In El Greco’s world, the sun never shines,"3 and this atypical El Greco–neither a religious painting nor a portrait–is also an exception to that rule. This is El Greco’s version of sunlight. Note the shadow cast on the facade of the Alcazar, the large royal palace that dominates the city at right. The grass between city and river is also brightly sunlit, as is the spotlighted fortress on the hill at left. Travelers (the merest stick figures, really) pass along the road to the bridge, and bathers and washerwomen are visible in the river, along with a man on horseback near the small island. It’s an ordinary day. There are storm clouds on the horizon–whether passed or imminent we cannot tell–and their darkness emphasizes the lightness of the city buildings. So one aspect of the work’s strangeness can be explained as a natural phenomenon: the unreal quality of the city is due to the exaggerated prominence of any object illuminated by sunlight against a background of dark clouds. But this does not explain why the artist chose such a scene to typify his city. It’s a natural phenomenon, but so is blue sky. Why does El Greco choose to make Toledo look so strange, as dreamlike as an image out of early twentieth century art?

    Modern eyes are the only eyes we have, and we must see this painting through them. The View of Toledo comes to us across four centuries as an uncanny premonition of modern trends in painting. The loosely painted, sun-dappled weeds in the right foreground bring to mind Renoir; the relative flatness (compared to the landscapes of Brueghel, for example) and verticality of the painting suggests Cézanne; the claustrophobic compression of the town, with all the buildings seemingly locked into a single plane, is an extremely early harbinger of Cubism; the spiky, jagged contour of the city skyline and the dramatically lighted sky predict the landscapes of German Expressionism. Probably the most modern aspect of the painting, though, is its fragmentation. It is, more properly, a "View of a Part of Toledo and the Surrounding Countryside." Comparison with El Greco’s larger and more traditionally topographical View and Plan of Toledo shows that in the Met canvas he eliminates almost all of the city. The fortress wall and gates, all of the houses, the numerous towers that punctuate the skyline, all are cropped off the right side of El Greco’s canvas, leaving us only the eastern edge of town, the landmark Alcantara bridge, the river, and a couple of country roads. It is not so much a view as a poetic evocation of Toledo, a Modernist poem that distills the city into a few important, immediately recognizable images.

    Foremost among these are the Alcazar and the cathedral tower, representations of Church and State, symbols of ultimate power. But a single glance at any other image of Toledo shows us that El Greco has committed an act of nearly heretical audacity. Toledo Cathedral is located in the middle of town, well outside the range of this painting. Like some omnipotent being, the artist has picked up this most recognizable symbol of the city and moved it to Toledo’s eastern edge. He has decentered the cathedral, and this act provides a metaphor that helps us to understand the entire painting. The whole work is radically decentered and destabilized. Conceptually, it falls on the border between landscape and city view, neither one nor the other. The structures nearest the mathematical center of the canvas are the small buildings that move step-like down the hill, an image not of central stability but of uncertain upward or downward motion. In El Greco’s complete View and Plan, the most dramatic opening in the clouds is near the center of the sky; here it is transferred to the right side where it emphasizes the importance of the Alcazar directly below. The painting should look terribly lopsided, like an arbitrarily sliced fragment, but somehow, amazingly, it works. It is highly stylized and capricious, with a strange, original beauty–in a word, it is Mannerist. In Spain, far from the influence of the Carracci and Caravaggio and the styles we now call Baroque, El Greco was free to explore his own Venetian and Florentine/Roman Mannerist influences. His late works can thus be seen as the final, decadent flowers of the Italian Renaissance, flourishing in a Spanish garden. This painting, with its dislocations and decenterings that so dramatically call attention to themselves, is a Mannerist declaration of artistic independence. Just as in his figure compositions El Greco ignores classical proportions to elongate human bodies in the name of beauty and elegance, here he radically edits and alters a city to create a more original and evocative vision. The View of Toledo is a witty statement of the artist’s freedom from the servile imitation of reality.

    It is a brutal irony that El Greco found this freedom in the capital city of the Spanish Inquisition. (But then, Spain around 1600 was a brutally ironic place, as Cervantes could have told El Greco, had they ever met.) Toledo in the artist’s time was a proud city on the verge of decline. It had suffered a major loss of prestige when Philip II moved the royal court to Madrid in 1561, but it remained the center of the Spanish church, the archbishop of Toledo sitting confidently atop the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Historian Richard Kagan writes of the archbishops’ desire to make the city "an ideal diocese, an example for the rest of the Spanish church to follow."4 Their principle tool was the Inquisition, which organized "an extensive network of neighborhood spies (familiares) who were expected to keep a close watch on anyone whose belief was suspect...[I]n the capital of the Spanish church, there would be little room for–or tolerance of–doctrinal error and spiritual dissent."5 This was El Greco’s Toledo: a city that a few centuries before had been a jewel of multiculturalism and the principal site of the translation of Greek and Arabic writings–"the radiant intellectual capital of Europe,"6 in the words of Maria Rosa Menocal–now transformed into a place of rigidly enforced Christian totalitarianism. And El Greco, in a very small way, was a part of the church’s machinery of domination. He would undoubtedly have preferred to be a much more important part. The dreams of courtly employment that drew him to Spain never fully materialized, and even in Toledo his hopes of lucrative contracts from the main cathedral were dashed after a controversy regarding the imagery and cost of his early Disrobing of Christ. But his many works executed for other Toledan churches and religious institutions mark him as a powerful propagandist for the Spanish church. At a time when Counter-Reformation Catholicism insisted on the supreme importance of the sacraments, El Greco painted a dramatic Crucifixion, now at the Cleveland Museum of Art, in which thick drops of eucharistic blood rain down across the sky from the outstretched arms of Christ. Because the Spanish church favored the doctrine of Immaculate Conception, El Greco punctuated his Assumptions and Annunciations with prominent symbols of Virginal purity. None of this should surprise us; nor should it detract from El Greco’s stature as an artist. Most of Europe’s greatest artists have been, in one way or another, propagandists for their patron’s ideologies. This is not to say, however, that a thousand years of artistic biography can be reduced to countless recapitulations of the Leni Riefenstahl story. Truly great art overcomes propagandistic intentions because it is multiply meaningful. Triumph of the Will will never be anything more than a boring, evil propaganda film (anyone who praises its artistry has probably not seen it); Casablanca, on the other hand, rises above its propagandistic elements through the intelligence and wit of the Epstein brothers’ screenplay. Similarly, the vast, multiply meaningful monument that is Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling far transcends its own references to Pope Julius II and his Della Rovere family. On a much smaller scale, the meaning of the View of Toledo is also multiple, and considerably more enigmatic. The equally prominent spire and palace symbolize the power of the Faith and its royal defender, but this is hardly a celebratory vision. This city that was once a welcoming center of humanistic learning (and remained in El Greco’s day home to many Catholic intellectuals, some of whom were his patrons) now looks grim and forbidding. No longer a city of man, it is now a stern and austere City of God.

    The Toledo on this canvas looks decidedly inhumane. People are insignificant here, as tiny as the ants in Dali’s inventions. The city itself seems like something other than the work of human hands. It is an emanation of the hill, a bizarre, rocky outcropping that has pushed through the earth, continuing the upward motion of the land. The cathedral tower is a stylized stalagmite rising in the dark cavern of the sky. Like a jagged mountain peak, the city is Sublime, a seat of other-than-human power, more closely related to the colors of the mystical sky above than the pastoral land below. It is a place indifferent to the mundane needs of ordinary human beings. It is a ghost town, a ghostly town, drained of color, bloodless. Or alternatively–and much more frighteningly–it can be understood as a city that has been ‘cleansed’ and ‘purified.’ Cleansed of Muslims (defeated centuries earlier), cleansed of Jews (expelled in the Columbian year 1492) and purified of heresy by the threats and tortures of the Inquisition. The Spanish church invoked a racist concept of ‘blood purity’ to terrorize even the descendants of Muslims and Jews who had converted to Christianity. The ‘impure,’ non-Christian blood of their forebears made them suspect, and the Inquisitors’ task was to root them out. This idea of racial purity may be reflected in the Spanish embrace of the doctrine of Immaculate Conception and is thus echoed in El Greco’s immaculate Virgins, surrounded by symbols of purity (crescent moon, lilies, roses). The taintless Virgin, the exact opposite of impurity, was a fitting icon for a church dedicated to ethnic and ideological cleansing.

    Is the View of Toledo a vision of a city that has been ethnically cleansed? I think it is that and more. Working in Toledo, El Greco was in the (again) brutally ironic position of an eclectic, cosmopolitan Greek immigrant propagandizing for a Spanish power structure that carried out ethnic cleansing. He was a Cretan/Venetian/Roman/Byzantine/ Renaissance/Mannerist artist employed by promoters of ideological purity and conformity. El Greco was certainly no political rebel, and he seems to have wholly accepted Counter-Reformation dogma (even to the extent of suggesting (in jest?) that he be hired to replace Michelangelo’s Sistine Last Judgment with a more decorous and suitable work), but it is unthinkable that he lived entirely without doubt. As a learned man with intellectual friends and pretensions, he surely must have considered the supreme ironies of his position. Even the nickname by which the world knows him, El Greco, ‘the Greek,’ is a sign of his outsider status. When he looked at Toledo he saw both his hometown and a place where he would never be completely accepted. I think some of this ambivalence works its way into the View. El Greco may intend to honor the city, but he cannot celebrate it. There is something about the place that remains implacably Other to him, and he communicates this feeling across four centuries to us. The river in the foreground is a barrier we cannot cross, and it may also be a barrier that protects us. The View of Toledo is a chilling image of a totalitarian society, a place dominated by religious zealots. A conformist in so many ways, El Greco is artist enough to produce a vision of his Spain that is frightening, enigmatic and terribly true. Seen through contemporary eyes, with religious fanatics and reactionaries gaining power around the world, this postcard from the distant past seems like a vision of a possible future. No wonder it terrifies us.
 
 
NOTES

1. Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 67.

2. Hopkins, "God’s Grandeur," Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 101.

3. Brown, et al., El Greco of Toledo, 136.

4. Ibid., 58.

5. Ibid., 59.

6. Menocal, Ornament, 145.

 

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