The art essay

The Holy Trinity by El Greco (1541–1614)

Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541–1614) was born in Crete, which at the time was a part of the Republic of Venice. He was schooled in the art of writing icons and exposed to the liturgical practices and theology of Byzantine and Orthodox Christianity. Around 1567, he moved to Venice, where he became a disciple of the famous Venetian painters Titian and Tintoretto. The Venetian school, which emphasized vibrant colors and contrasting light, would guide him throughout his career as he traveled within Italy and settled for a time in Rome. It was following his move to Toledo, Spain, in 1577 that he became known to the world as “El Greco” (“The Greek”), emphasizing his place of origin.

While El Greco eventually obtained royal commissions from Philip II, the Spanish king did not like his unique style, and the artist was more successful finding work from other sources. A particularly significant commission in Toledo came from the will of devout Catholic Doña María de Silva and was carried out by her executor Diego de Castilla regarding the Cistercian convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. The convent was to be rebuilt, with El Greco providing eight paintings for the new chapel. Six of the panels would adorn the main altar, with The Holy Trinity positioned high in the center above a separate panel of the Assumption of the Virgin directly below. The architectural layout of the thematic pieces generates an upward movement toward union with the Triune God. The installation manifests all of El Greco’s influences: the liturgical sensibilities from the Orthodox tradition, the elongated figures from Byzantine iconography, the vibrant colors from the Venetian school, and the Michelangelo-like figures and movement from the artist’s time in Rome.

The Holy Trinity

The depiction of the divine Persons in The Holy Trinity was most likely influenced by an Albrecht Dürer print from 1511, and the arrangement of the figures is similar to a Florentine Pietà by Michelangelo; however, El Greco’s effort is novel and presents rather sophisticated theology. The position of the painting directly above the Assumption of the Virgin stresses the focus of Mary’s gaze and heavenly destination. Yet, more significantly, the dead Christ being held by God the Father emphasizes the relationship between the sacrifice of the cross and the sacrifice of the Mass. Painting during the time of the Catholic Reformation, El Greco explicitly highlights the theological relevance of the sacraments. The broken Body of Christ offered in the Eucharistic celebration is the same broken Body being suspended by God the Father in The Holy Trinity. Ecclesial themes are emphasized by God the Father wearing a bishop’s miter, suggesting that the authority of the bishop is only possible through divine delegation. The various angels and cherubs tending to the interaction of the divine Persons manifest how creation is affected by the sacrifice of Christ, which in turn facilitates a response from all created beings. The relatively unbloody corpse of Christ anticipates the resurrected body, which unbloodily bears the marks of the crucifixion. The hovering of the Spirit (embodied by the dove) within a vibrant yellow glow that parts the stone-like clouds proposes that it is the same Spirit that will penetrate the stone of the tomb at the moment of Christ’s Resurrection.

Infinite love

Every action by each divine Person within the Trinity is done infinitely—meaning beyond time and space. A divine Person can only act in an infinite manner, while every created being can only act in a finite manner. El Greco’s painting of The Holy Trinity conveys the heart and passion of Trinitarian theology and Christology. The Son of God, who exists infinitely, is revealed through finite creation in the person of Jesus Christ. Yet Jesus is a divine Person, meaning that his human actions have infinite significance. How might this relate to the fate of humanity? Only the infinite merit and offering of Christ’s death is large enough to encapsulate and embrace every single finite person within the Trinitarian relationship. All of fallen humanity has been disobedient to God, yet by Christ’s obedience, the sinner, who experiences separation from God, is now brought back wholly into the divine relationship. El Greco’s The Holy Trinity manifests the infinite love of the Triune God who, as Saint Paul says, was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19).

Father John Gribowich

Holds a graduate degree in art history from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, N.Y., and recently completed an MBA at the University of California, Berkeley.

 

The Holy Trinity (1577–1579), El Greco (1541–1614), Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain.
© Dist. RMN-GP / image musée du Prado.