Encounters in the Fitzwilliam: El Greco’s St John the Evangelist

Henry Coleman 26 February 2019
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

El Greco’s St John the Evangelist looks nothing like a painting by an artist born in 1541; the saint looks nothing like any human I’ve ever seen. But, this is not because he is an idealised hero with a figure too perfect to be real. The first impression from this painting, and the one which colours every subsequent perception, is simply that it is extraordinarily strange.

The saint’s face is sallow and in places almost caved-in, while his neck and body are absurdly elongated. It is a disquieting image to stand in front of for any length of time. But the more I look at this painting the less it grabs my attention through bizarreness and the more arresting it becomes for its emotional power.

By this artist’s standards the setting and use of colour are tame, but the luminous white face against the black background still feels apocalyptic. John the Evangelist retains his standard-issue pink, but it is so washed-out and so harshly lit that any softness is gone for good. The folds of his drapery – which is portrayed over an unnaturally blocky body – are portrayed with a delicacy and subtle shading which at first seems quite out of piece with the rest of this image.

On closer inspection, though, the painting as a whole is noted by exactly this precision, underpinning the twisted weirdness of the whole. The saint’s face, for instance, is shrouded in shadow, but the contours and tensions of his face are shown with meticulous attention to detail, giving his expression a deeply melancholy framing. His eyes are turned away from the viewer – but he is nonetheless firmly aware of the viewer’s presence, watching and apparently haunting him; the wry, knowing smile is enough to show that. His deliberate avoidance of our gaze makes it look like a man remembered to history on the back of his words and stories, hiding something from us now.

The great appeal of El Greco, and the reason this painting will never get old to me, is this feeling of mystery; the enigmatic quality of a painting full of motion but with no story we can quite work out. St John is gesturing out of the frame of the painting with his arm, a dramatic and sweeping gesture which gives the whole painting a sense of anticipation and spectacle. But we can never know what he is pointing us to.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons