El Greco and the Spanish Renaissance

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The Reconquest and the Renaissance

Christian armies rose in the 8th century and over the course of a century sought to expand Iberia’s Christian kingdoms.  Despite a great Muslim resurgence in the 12th century, Christian Spain held through to the 13th. 

In 1469 the Christian kingdoms of Aragon and Castile were joined when Ferdinand II of Aragon wed Isabella I of Castile.  When their joint forces captured Granada, it meant the complete end of Islamic rule in Iberia.  With 1492 came Columbus’ arrival in the New World; the Spanish Inquisition forced Spain’s Jews to convert to Catholicism or face exile; the Muslims were treated similarly shortly thereafter. Hispania became Espana, and Spain emerged as a world power.

The Renaissance made only sparse appearances in Spain at first; the profane art, humanism and the putting of Classical Antiquity on, well, a pedestal – all that was only sporadic. 

Why?  Spain was deeply entrenched in its medieval tradition and heavily influenced by Mudejar culture; this was work in art and architecture done by the Muslim population and Christian craftsmen trained in Muslim styles who remaind in Spain after the Islamic rulers were expulsed during the Reconquest.

Hence Spain had a hard time accepting the wave of new aesthetics and philosophy that had flowed out from Italy and was overwhelming the rest of Europe.  What Renaissance there was was heavily influenced by Netherlandish painting, owing to important tied between Flanders and Spain from the mid-fifteenth century onward.

The Spanish Empire and the Renaissance

Spain was Europe’s leading power for all of the 16th and much of the 17th centuries, a factors that worked in favor of new thinking about what life and art were about.  The economic and political situation under Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile aside, there were two other important factors at work:  one was the optimism nationwide following the discover of America and especially the final victory of the Moors.  The third was the Spanish medieval castle becoming a palace. 

Key to the change was Don Inigo Lopez de Mendoza, the second count of Tendilla.  Sent to Italy to make peace between Rome and Naples, he came back with a number of prominent Italian artists and intellectuals.  Later, many Spanish artists visited Italy, attracted by the fame of the Italian schools.  Meanwhile, Seville became Spain’s cultural centre, attracting artists from across Europe who were drawn by the wealth of commissions.

The most important characteristic setting Spanish Renaissance painting apart from that of Germany, France or Italy concerns the subject matter more than the style:  a rejection of mythological themes and the cult of the nude.  The Spanish Renaissance painter had inherited spirituality from his Gothic predecessors, and worked for monasteries and churches or religiously-inclined nobles.  The debt is obvious to Leonardo da Vinci (for the modeling), Raphael (plastic qualities) and Michelangelo (drama).

But the art of the 16th century was not exclusively religious; portrait painting also flourished.  But the main event that overwhelmed the mediocrity of Spanish painting at the time was the arrival of El Greco:  born on the island of Crete, trained under Titian, a supreme individualist and with top technique, he was influenced by Michelangelo’s idea of the grandeur of the human form.  His coming to Spain was a revolution.  By the end of his life he had developed a strongly Mannerist style.

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