The Miracle of Christ healing the blind – painting by ‘ El Greco’
Doménikos Theotokópoulos, nicknamed ‘El Greco’ (the Greek) was born in 1541 in Crete, a Greek island that had passed from Byzantine to Venetian rule in 1212. Initially trained as an icon painter, he soon transformed himself from the flat symbolic world to master the dynamic humanistic elements of the Renaissance. However the vision of embodying a higher realm of spirit remained common.
Among the finest of his works is the ‘Miracle of Christ healing the blind’. El Greco painted this dramatic storytelling either in Venice or in Rome, where he worked before moving to Spain in 1576. He spent the rest of his life in Toledo and died there on April 7, 1614.
Executed in oil on canvas, the painting illustrates the Gospel narrative (John 9:1-41) of Christ healing a blind man by anointing his eyes with clay on a Sabbath. Three versions of this painting are known, all similar in structure and by the same artist, but differing in treatment. The first is a smaller and unsigned panel in Dresden which includes genre symbols of a dog, pilgrim sack and pitcher in the foreground, waived in consecutive versions. The second lies at Parma and the third and largest painting is displayed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
The painting is illustrated in layers. The figures of the compassionate Christ healing the man born blind are serenely central to the composition and occupy the foreground space, off-centre to the left. A host of activity surrounds them. On the left are the neighbours and the people discerning the identity of the man born blind, in the frontal foreground are the two bust-length figures, possibly the parents of the blind man, summoned to confirm that their son had been born blind and on the right are the Pharisees condemning the act of Jesus on the Sabbath. A broad piazza in the background recedes towards a pedimented gateway, flanked by Renaissance palaces. The two seated figures in the middle ground are so thinly painted that the pavement is visible through them. The mode of painting, the light and bright colours are essentially Venetian.
This painting is imbued with the spirit of the Counter-Reformation and the enactments of the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563) to purify religious practices. The gift of sight is therefore emblematic of the revelation of true faith that the Council professed.
El Greco was hardly in the good books with his contemporaries. He regarded Michelangelo as ‘a good man who did not know how to paint.’ Infact, he offered Pope Pius V to repaint ‘the Last Judgement’ in the Sistine Chapel in accordance to the new and stricter Catholic thinking. It was perhaps on this cause that he acquired many enemies and was called the ‘foolish foreigner’ in Rome.
Greco once stated, ‘You must study the Masters but guard the original style that beats within your soul.’ Study, he did, quite extensively as noted in this painting. The dramatic use of recession behind the figures in the foreground is Tintoretto’s invention. He is influenced by Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ as noted by the seated men in the center of the composition. Interestingly he imitates Michelangelo’s frescoes of the Sistine Chapel as reflected by the figure right behind the blind man.
The attacks on his style progressed in the 17th century as ‘contemptible and laughable’ and as ‘a jumble of carelessly thrown together, badly drawn human figures not worth fifty dollars.’ Today, of course, his legacy is not the same. El Greco is celebrated for his ability to dramatize than describe the strong spiritual emotion that transfers from the painting to the audience. A sonnet by the poet Luis de Gongora described him as divine.
“Here lies ‘the Greek’,” he wrote,
“Leaving to nature all his art,
To art his lore, to Iris hues,
To Phoebus lights, to Morpheus shadows deep.”
It is indeed the tale of REDISCOVERY concerning the man born blind seeing again, the new vision of the Church post the Council of the Trent and the acknowledgement of the critically acclaimed artist calling then the viewer to ‘rediscover’ the mystical inner construction of the same.
Assitant Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Goregaon, Mumbai