Weaving threads of light and points of style

Most of El Greco's known paintings could have been painted by no one else. His flamboyant, ecstatic vision and his surging brushwork depicted a world in which ordinary men and women were transformed by an ethereal saintliness: they became lofty beings, dignified by his unusual sense of otherwordly grace. Events -- most of them Biblical or at least pious -- were never mere stories of happenings confined to a human realm: they trailed clouds of glory. Nativities, crucifixions, pietas, resurrections and miracles were visualized as cosmic revelations: the celestial reaches opened wide and were filled with heavenly multitudes.

On the face of it, however, "Fabula" is surprisingly untypical of his art. It has been dismissed as not much more than a glimpse of El Greco's early inclinations, scarcely connected with his later works. During the 1560s and part of the 1570s this Cretan-born painter worked in Italy, first under the tutelate of Titian, and then in Rome.

"Fabula" originated during these preparatory years and shows the clear influence of Jacopo Bassano, a Venetian painter of genre subjects which often included both peasants and candlelight effects. Two other existing versions of "Fabula," as well as some separate paintings of the central boy alone, lighting his candle, were made while the artist was still in Italy, but the example shown here, which is certainly the most complete and resolved of this treatments of the subject, was produced sometime between 1585 and 1590 -- well after he had moved to Toledo in Spain -- at a time when he was painting some of his most individual and mature pictures. So it is evident that the unknown subject of this enigmatic picture was not just an early, passing interest, but intrigued the painter over a long period, suggesting either that it was popular with clients or -- since he was apparently not short of work -- that it was, for him, a seminal and privately important study, of significance to the development of his art.

Many writers have observed the evermoving and almost eerie alternations of light and darkness that strangely characterize even his gentlest and sweetest religious paintings. It is virtually the hallmakr of his art: figures are painted in formal terms very similar to the flexuous leaping and darting of flames at night. The elongated legs and upstretched arms of the figures are like twisting tongues of fire (this is by no means a fanciful simile), and even the enveloping draperies take on a life of their own, voluminous and swirling like smoke. Conflagration seems to have provided, by association, an imagery intensely suited to the artist's restless visualization of longing and penitence , worship and revelation. It is a visual metaphor that is even carried over into the stormy landscape of his famous "View of Toledo," where the brushwork seems frantic with the contrary agitations of some great wind-wafted fire, tossed by gusts of wind.

From this point of view, the close observation of fire-effect in the "Fabula" paintings takes on a meaning in El Greco's art which could be given some consideration, though it probably shouldn't be made too weighty. It seems unlikely that El Greco's astonishing originality somehow sprang into full being without any prompting, though even serious art historians have been tempted to suggest this. Walter Friedlander, for instance, in his book "Mannerism and Anti-Mannerism in Italian Painting," describes El Greco as an artist "in whom the flame of original, true, and spiritual Mannerism again burst into life with completely unprecedented vehemence." He suggests that "Fabula" is just a rather odd genre composition from which "we can get a little light" on the subject of what his paintings might have been like had he not gone to Toledo, away from the "specifically 'modern' art movement of central Italy."

Setting aside the unexplained -- and perhaps slightly malevolent? -- subject of "Fabula" (the presence of the ape is particularly strange), what can be discerned in it is a fascination for a particular kind of light, and a particular kind of darkness, the mingling of which produced a hallucinatory and dreamlike atmosphere.It is immensely evocative, but not of any very obvious emotion or tension. What El Greco did see, however, was how the light from the burning charcoal dramatically altered ordinary forms so that they became extraordinary.

It illumines the boy's hands so that they seem elongated and mysterious. The leer on the older man's face might also be the result of this distortion. The boy's open-necked shirt almost takes on the character of fire, curving up in two flames. The painter managed to convey an unfamiliar light effect which he later found could profoundly serve expressionistic and even ecstatic ends.

At the least, this early experiment can hardly be unconnected with the inspired dream world of El Greco's maturity, alight with conflagrations real and imaginary: white flashes bursting through clouds, burning bushes, torches flaring against the night, angled sun rays piercing down to earth, auras and supernatural radiances suddenly lighting up figures and features caught and exalted by the throes of some wonderful, miraculous occurrence.

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