El Greco – The Pentecost

Color is the basic factor in this picture. It is at the opposite extreme from such pictures as Holbein’s Jane Seymour, where the design is first drawn in sharp outlines, and color then laid between them, as a hard, superficial addition. Here there are no continuously sharp outlines: the picture is built up of broad streaks of color, more or less indefinite and melting at the edges. One’s attention is drawn, not to these edges, but to the narrow streaks of lighter, brighter color which emerge from the darker, broader ones, again with soft melting edges, to represent long highlights on limbs and garment-folds. These long streaks act as lines, in giving shape and direction to the movements. Tintoretto had used streaks of light in such a way, but here they are less like natural reflections on flesh and cloth; the Venetian interest in realistic textures is gone. These garments are not cloth, but sheets of vaporous flame, wrapping bodies hardly more solid. The heads and arms themselves are translucent, phosphorescent, as if composed of luminous gases in some intricate pyrotechnic display. They reflect no natural light, but seem to glow from within. The shadows themselves are luminous, glowing more sombrely in deep blue-greens and crimsons. Sometimes they are in hues contrasting with those of the highlights, to form an iridescent shimmer of greenish gold and violet. Color thus makes a direct appeal in itself, rather than as an imitation of some well known material.

Yet it is not mere abstract decoration. It ceases to be paint, and creates the illusion of some strange ghostly substance out there in space. It is just realistic enough to convey the essentials of its Biblical story, with all the emotional associations attached. It is a bridge between the world seen and the supernatural world imagined, and thus expresses the visions of a religious mystic in a fervidly religious age.

Expressing the same spirit, the rhythms of movement not only form a decorative pattern, but convey a mood of agitated aspiration. The basic arrangement of figures is fairly symmetrical and stable, with a horizontal row of heads that further tends to restrain movement. The design is one of intersecting triangles. The two men below, and the central one above, stand out as a triangular pattern in themselves, through greater size and color-power. Another triangle, inverted, has its base in the row of heads, and its sides converge to the central figure’s feet, one man’s arm being elongated to define it. From the same base a longer angle comes down to the lower men’s knees, there to branch out again. On this firm basic pattern, El Greco as usual imposes an irregular, vibratory movement of the individual parts. Its effect of internal agitation is increased by the close-packed crowding of the figures. Its direction is irresistibly upward, in a flame-like swirl, back and forth in wide sweeping angles at the bottom, then upward in shorter angles, pressed together, trembling and flickering along arms, necks and faces that are twisted by writhing flames and shadows, up to the line of ecstatic faces crowned with literal tongues of flame.