El Greco’s psychologically compelling portraits also greatly inspired his successor,
. The former’s St. Jerome as a Scholar
(ca. 1610), for instance, elegantly combines the holy man’s asceticism and ambitious scholarly accomplishments. The sitter’s unusually elastic frame, a hallmark of El Greco’s aesthetic, manages to highlight both his seriousness and godliness.
It is El Greco’s visionary religious works, however, that most strongly seem to prefigure modern art. In an effort to embody a higher realm of the spirit, El Greco pushed his paintings’ mystical content, distorted and dematerialized figures, expressive effects of light and color, and monumental scale to greater extremes. Undulating nude bodies extend to the sky in the background of the metaphysical Vision of Saint John (ca. 1608–14). The gangly, titular saint, in a flowing electric blue robe, stretches out his arms, contorting his body into a shape resembling the cross. Unusually, there are no explicit religious symbols in this work: The absence of Catholic garb, gold halos, or books and eagles to signify John makes the vision itself—a moment of religious ecstasy—the true subject of the work.
Although he influenced generations of Spanish painters, from Velázquez to
(who called him “a Venetian painter…but Cubist in construction”), El Greco does not truly belong to the lineage of the Spanish Renaissance. His workshop, though popular, yielded no school of art, and for almost 200 years after his death, many of his works were derided by critics for their perceived emotional and compositional indulgence (or, perhaps, the conservative establishment simply resented his freewheeling, intuitive approach). In the 19th century,
artists resurrected an appreciation for his work, lauding its emphasis on individual expression and emotional extremity; modernists like van Gogh and
fashioned themselves his artistic heirs.
Today, the artist is still closely associated with the Venetian artistic tradition, yet his approach to religious art retained a lifelong influence from the Byzantine icons of his youth. Such icons rejected realism in favor of straightforward, symbolic representation, and possessed a sacred function, attempting to embody the divine presence. Tellingly, throughout his life, the artist signed his works with his given Greek name, rather than an Italian or Spanish translation.
His paintings thus appear outside of time: El Greco embraced this ancient artistic tradition as he championed contemporary advancements and foreshadowed evolutions to come. It seems almost fitting that the artist spent years as an outsider in every city, from Italy to Spain, in which he lived. It is precisely his personal vision of art and looking that have made him an artist wholly beyond time and place—the passionate spirituality of his work endures.