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Art and the Religious Image in El Greco's Italy

By Andrew R. Casper

Publication Year: 2014

Art and the Religious Image in El Greco’s Italy is the first book-length examination of the early career of one of the early modern period’s most notoriously misunderstood figures. Born around 1541, Domenikos Theotokopoulos began his career as an icon painter on the island of Crete. He is best known, under the name “El Greco,” for the works he created while in Spain, paintings that have provoked both rapt admiration and scornful disapproval since his death in 1614. But the nearly ten years he spent in Venice and Rome, from 1567 to 1576, have remained underexplored until now. Andrew Casper’s examination of this period allows us to gain a proper understanding of El Greco’s entire career and reveals much about the tumultuous environment for religious painting after the Council of Trent. Casper’s analysis portrays El Greco as an active participant in some of the most formative artistic discussions of his time. It shows how the paintings of his early career explore the form, function, and conception of the religious image in the second half of the sixteenth century, and how he cultivated artistic fame by incorporating aspects of the styles of Michelangelo, Titian, and other contemporary masters. Beyond this, El Greco’s paintings bear the marks of an artist attentive to theoretical speculation on the artistic process, the current understandings of the science of optics and perspective, and the role of Roman antiquity for Christian ideology. All of these characteristics demonstrate El Greco’s unique understanding of the merger of artistic craft with devotional intent through what Casper terms the “artful icon.”

Published by: Penn State University Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

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pp. xiii-xiv

This book culminates a journey that began during my doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania. I am most grateful to Michael Cole for pointing out the importance of this material and teaching me that the...

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pp. 1-14

The seventeenth-century poet and preacher Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino summarized the life of the painter commonly known as El Greco (The Greek) by writing, “Crete gave him life and his paintbrushes / Toledo [Spain] gave him a better...

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Chapter One: The Divinity of Painting

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pp. 15-42

One of El Greco’s earliest surviving Cretan icons is St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child (fig. 4). This icon is heavily damaged, as eroded portions of the surface obscure parts of the saint’s body. Both the nature and location of this wear are indexes of heartfelt acts of devotion by the faithful through...

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Chapter Two: The Devotional Image

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pp. 43-72

The majority of paintings that El Greco produced in Italy were small in scale and featured standard subjects created expressly to meet the needs of private devotion. They took shape either as multipanel ensembles or as independent pictures whose small size facilitated easy transport. Because of El Greco’s lack of acclaim as a painter at that time...

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Chapter Three: Synthesis as Artistic Ideal

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pp. 73-96

The celebration of artistic virtuosity that became part of the appeal of what I have called the artful icon permitted—even compelled—artists to use the most advanced styles and techniques when making devotional images. For this reason, El Greco embarked on a course of study after the best...

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Chapter Four: The Theatrics of the Counter-Reformation Narrative

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pp. 97-124

El Greco’s penchant for compositional repetition shaped his production of two narrative subjects that appear prominently early in his career. His first two versions of the Cleansing of the Temple (see figs. 52 and 53) served as the basis for no less than six editions that all repeat the same basic...

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Chapter Five: The Artist as Antiquarian in Christian Rome

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pp. 125-150

El Greco left Venice in 1570 to go to Rome and study works by Italian artists that he knew only through prints and other copies. Giulio Clovio’s 1570 letter introducing El Greco to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese as a young “disciple” of Titian is one of the few known benchmarks for the artist’s...

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Chapter Six: From Icon to Altarpiece

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pp. 151-174

The years encompassing El Greco’s departure from Rome and his first activities in Spain were checkered with success and disappointment.1 Italy did not furnish the lucrative work opportunities that he had hoped to obtain, and his perception of the promise of prestigious commissions, which had...


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pp. 175-192


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pp. 193-208


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pp. 209-221

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780271063065
Print-ISBN-13: 9780271060545
Print-ISBN-10: 0271060549

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 34 color/50 b&w illustrations
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 870646842
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Art and the Religious Image in El Greco's Italy

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Subject Headings

  • Greco, 1541?-1614 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Art, Italian -- 16th century -- Influence.
  • Christian art and symbolism -- Italy -- Renaissance, 1450-1600.
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