Can the Darkness Condemn the Light?

By Hillary Asbury

Domenikos Theotokopulos, born in the 16th century and commonly known as El Greco, is a European artist with one of the most distinctive styles of his time. Originally from Crete, he studied in Venice, worked in Italy for some time, and went on to heavily influence not only the Spanish Renaissance and generations of artists thereafter (Picasso and Cezanne among them), but his work was a major factor in the development of the Expressionist and Mannerist movements.

As a young artist I was fascinated by his style, which was a major departure from that of his contemporaries. His figures are distorted and his compositions seem to either flow upward or fall haphazardly. Considering the major developments and trends of the Renaissance included the accurate anatomical representation of figures and linear perspective, his paintings almost seem wild. Artists at the time were using science to inform their work, they were learning biology to increase their knowledge of the human body and using math to create perfect compositions. El Greco seems to fly in the face of these conventions, with no small amount of confidence in his defiance. He is reported to have said of Michelangelo, “He was a good man, but he did not know how to paint.” To be fair, Michelangelo probably wouldn’t have argued the point but it seems a rather extreme thing to say about the painter of the Sistine Chapel.

When I began studying El Greco’s work, the first descriptor that came to mind was “moody”. I don’t know why but I’ve always been attracted to this quality in his paintings. Perhaps it is because it is so different from my own, or because it is so different from that of his contemporaries. Maybe it is because the work pushes toward expressionism, perhaps betraying an underlying emotion or mental state. As I’ve mentioned before, I often battle varying degrees of depression and anxiety. I’ve known what it is to live in a distorted reality, to look at the world around me and know that what I see is not quite right, to live in the place that El Greco painted so often. This dark and dramatic way of handling the work has a particularly interesting effect on his religious scenes.

Take “The Resurrection”, 1597-1600, as a perfect example. One might expect this to be a bright and joyous painting considering the subject matter, but the muted colors, stormy background, spectral figures, and “S” curve composition come together to create a resurrection scene that evokes a feeling of otherworldliness more than one of celebration. The result is a mysterious look at our faith, one that doesn’t balk from the darkness that surrounds us but rather sees it as another facet of our lives and our walk with God. El Greco’s work here is more intuitive than technical, as though he felt his way through the creative process rather than planning out its execution. I can’t speak to what the artist was thinking or feeling when he did this piece but I find myself wondering if he was in a melancholy state of mind. I wonder if he doubted his faith in low moments and if he found comfort in his work, in the Scripture it illustrates.

For all its moodiness, I find El Greco’s work comforting. I sometimes wonder if I can be crushed by depression and still live in the joy of my salvation. Can I experience overwhelming anxiety and yet trust God’s promises? Can I feel entirely unsure and yet know that my future is secure in Christ? If I feel hopeless, is the hope of my faith still intact? I look at this painting and, whether it’s intended it or not, I see a “yes” to all of those questions. My feelings do not dictate who I am in my walk with God, Christ does. My depression does not rob me of my salvation or the joy and hope that I have in it. I can live with the darkness and yet live in Christ. Maybe that is why I am so drawn to El Greco’s style, I see myself in it: a melancholy artist living with joy and hope that comes only through faith in Christ.