Saturday, February 19, 2011

Out of the Darkness in Toledo in 1577

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) (1540/41–1614 )
View of Toledo c. after 1600
Oil on canvas
47 3/4 x 42 3/4 in. (121.3 x 108.6 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Ernest Hemingway described this as "the best picture in the Museum for me, and God knows there are some lovely ones".

Alfred M. Frankfurter. "Masterpieces of Landscape Painting in American Collections." Fine Arts 18 (December 1931), pp. 22, 25, ill., called it "the first impressionistic landscape...the first landscape not painted exactly as it seemed, or as well as the artist could render it" and  notes that "for dramatic content [the picture] has remained unsurpassed among the landscapes of four centuries".

The picture was in El Greco's studio at his death. It is not a historical work documenting what was there but an interpretative and poetic work. How he felt about the city and its people.

It is the dark side of Toledo. It depicts a turbulent place in turbulent times.

El Greco arrived in Toldeo, Spain early in 1577, He remained there for the next 37 years until his death in 1614

The City of Toledo in Spain in 1577 was a remarkable place

On June 2 of that year, while living there in the convent of her cloistered Carmelite nuns, Saint Teresa of Avila began her spiritual masterpiece, The Interior Castle.

During the first week of December 1577, the religious superiors of Saint John of the Cross charged him with disobedience for his refusal to abandon Teresa of Avila's reform of the Carmelite order and imprisoned him in a prison cell in their Toledo monastery.

He remained there for eight months until he escaped. But that confinement in a cell in Toldeo with the accompanying mistreatment and torture changed him forever. It was his long dark night in all senses of the expression.

In 1577 Toledo was a city in decline. In 1561 Philip II moved the royal court from Toldeo to Madrid. However it still remained the seat of the Primate of Spain, the Archbishop of Toledo. The See had the reputation of being the second richest and most important See after Rome.

It had been the scene of a major dispute between Church and State which had only just been partially resolved in 1576. The then Church-State difficulties make the present Church-State difficulties in Spain pale into insignificance.

In 1559 Philip II had the then Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo Bartolomé Carranza (1503 – May 2, 1576) arrested for heresy after being denounced by the Spanish Inquisition.

He was imprisoned for eight years in Spain and then on appeal to Rome confined in the Papal apartments in Castel Sant`Angelo in Rome for another ten years until shortly before his death. (Pope Saint Pius V wanted to find in favour of Carranza but had to postpone a decision because of diplomatic pressure from Spain. Then Pius V died and the problem was left for Popes Clement XIII and Gregory XIII to deal with, eventually being resolved by Gregory XIII)

On the death of Carranza, he was succeeded to the Archbishopric by Gaspar de Quiroga y Vela (13 January 1512 - 20 November 1595), the General Inquisitor of Spain. He was Philip II`s man and a year later Pope Gregory XIII created him a cardinal. At the same time that Gaspar de Quiroga y Vela was made Archbishop, Archduke Albert of Austria at the age of eighteen was made his co-adjutor and a Cardinal.

He was the nephew of Philip II. Gaspar de Quiroga y Vela was not expected to live long.

In 1577 the stage was set for the Imperial takeover of the Spanish Church.

In this cauldron of ecclesiastical politics, El Greco, St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross had to live and operate.

Bearing this background in mind, one can read about the life, works and achievement of St John of the Cross as taught by Pope Benedict XVI at last Wednesday`s catechesis in his series on Doctors of the Church

Much ink has been spilt especially in modern times about the spiritual ecstasies and mysticism of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. See below.

Print made by Eric Gill 1882 - 1940
The Soul and the Bridegroom 1927
From 'The Song of the Soul' by St. John-of-the-Cross, translated by Rev. John O'Connor and printed by the Chiswick Press, London for Francis Walterson, Capel-y-ffin, Abergavenny
Woodcut engraving on paper
7.8cm x 5cm
The British Museum, London

Print made by Eric Gill 1882 - 1940
No wild beast shall dismay me
From 'The Song of the Soul' by St. John-of-the-Cross, translated by Rev. John O'Connor and printed by the Chiswick Press, London for Francis Walterson, Capel-y-ffin, Abergavenny
Woodcut on paper
7.8cm x 10.7cm
The British Museum, London

But Pope Benedict XVI pursues a different tack and asks this question:

"Dear brothers and sisters, in the end the question remains:

Does this saint with his lofty mysticism, with this arduous way to the summit of perfection, have something to say to us, to the ordinary Christian who lives in the circumstances of today's life, or is he only an example, a model for a few chosen souls who can really undertake this way of purification, of mystical ascent?

To find the answer we must first of all keep present that the life of St. John of the Cross was not a "flight through mystical clouds," but was a very hard life, very practical and concrete, both as reformer of the order, where he met with much opposition, as well as provincial superior, as in the prison of his brothers of religion, where he was exposed to incredible insults and bad physical treatment.

It was a hard life but, precisely in the months spent in prison, he wrote one of his most beautiful works. And thus we are able to understand that the way with Christ, the going with Christ, "the Way," is not a weight added to the already sufficient burden, but something completely different, it is a light, a strength that helps us carry this burden."

He emphasises the suffering of St John of the Cross especially his imprisonment and torture in Toledo where he was kept incommunicado away from all his friends. This reminds us of what the other Carmelite Doctor, St Therese of Lisieux said:

"I prefer the monotony of obscure sacrifice to all ecstasies. To pick up a pin for love can convert a soul."

"I have a longing for those heart-wounds, those pin-pricks which inflict much pain. I know of no ecstasy to which I do not prefer sacrifice. There I find happiness, and there alone. The slender reed has no fear of being broken, for it is planted beside the waters of Love. When, therefore, it bends before the gale, it gathers strength in the refreshing stream, and longs for yet another storm to pass and sway its head. My very weakness makes me strong. No harm can come to me, since in whatever happens I see only the tender hand of Jesus... Besides, no suffering is too big a price to pay for glorious palm."

—Letter of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus to Mother Agnes of Jesus-1889

On or about the same time St John of the Cross was in prison, El Greco was working on his first commission in Toledo: The Disrobing of Christ or El Expolio

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) (1540/41–1614)
The Disrobing of Christ or El Expolio
Oil on canvas
285 cm × 173 cm (112 in × 68 in)
Sacristy of the Cathedral, Toledo, Spain

El Greco received the commission through the good offices of Diego de Castilla, the dean of the Cathedral of Toledo. It was for the sacristy of the Cathedral where the painting is still located. It depicts a subject which until then was very rare in Western art: the oppression of Christ by his cruel tormentors

A serene and detached Christ dressed in a flaming red robe (the colour of blood martyrdom and the flaming fire of the Holy Spirit) is looking up to heaven (to the Father) while his executioners like baying hyenas and dressed in contemporary Spanish dress surround him to prepare him for his Passion and Crucifixion

Ultimately it is a meditation on suffering, the Incarnation and the Trinity but a limited one.

But it is St John of the Cross who provides us with a more comprehensive meditation wrought by his experience, Faith, purification, prayer and Love

The Pope said of St John of the Cross:

"According to John of the Cross, everything that exists, created by God, is good. Through creatures, we can come to the discovery of the One who has left his imprint on them. Faith, however, is the only source given to man to know God exactly as he is in himself, as God One and Triune.

All that God willed to communicate to man he said in Jesus Christ, his Word made flesh. He, Jesus Christ, is the only and definitive way to the Father (cf. John 14:6). Anything created is nothing compared with God, and nothing is true outside of him. Consequently, to come to perfect love of God, every other love must be conformed in Christ to divine love.

This is where John of the Cross derives his insistence on the need for purification and interior emptying in order to be transformed in God, which is the sole end of perfection. This "purification" does not consist in the simple physical lack of things or of their use. What the pure and free soul does, instead, is to eliminate every disordered dependence on things. Everything must be placed in God as center and end of life. The long and difficult process of purification exacts personal effort, but the true protagonist is God: all that man can do is to "dispose" himself, to be open to the divine action and not place obstacles in its way.

Living the theological virtues, man is elevated and gives value to his own effort. The rhythm of growth of faith, hope and charity goes in step with the work of purification and with progressive union with God until one is transformed in him. When one arrives at this end, the soul is submerged in the very Trinitarian life, such that St. John affirms that the soul is able to love God with the same love with which he loves it, because he loves it in the Holy Spirit.

This is why the Mystical Doctor holds that there is no true union of love with God if it does not culminate in the Trinitarian union. In this supreme state the holy soul knows everything in God and no longer has to go through creatures to come to him. The soul now feels inundated by divine love and is completely joyful in it. ...

If a man has a great love within him, it's as if this love gives him wings, and he endures life's problems more easily, because he has in himself that light, which is faith: to be loved by God and to let oneself be loved by God in Christ Jesus. This act of allowing oneself to be loved is the light that helps us to carry our daily burden. And holiness is not our work, our difficult work, but rather it is precisely this "openness":

Open the windows of the soul so that the light of God can enter, do not forget God because it is precisely in opening oneself to his light that strength is found, as well as the joy of the redeemed. Let us pray to the Lord so that he will help us to find this sanctity, to allow ourselves to be loved by God, which is the vocation of us all, as well as being true redemption."

And perhaps that is why the following images of the Saint and Doctor are perhaps more apposite when we contemplate him and his works:

Bernard Bénézet 1835 - 1897
The Appearance of Christ to St John of the Cross
Black ink pen on paper
20.5cm x 15.5cm
Musée du Vieux-Toulouse, Toulouse

The then Blessed John of the Cross
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Francisco Antonio Gijón (1653–c. 1721) and unknown painter (possibly Domingo Mejías)
Saint John of the Cross (detail)
c. 1675
Sculpture: painted and gilded wood
168 cm (66 1/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington