Spain (part II)

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Philip II was certainly not capable of raising his funereal piety to the level of the passion which filled the little church in Toledo with faces made livid by the rush of blood to the heart, and with eyes of fever and of wild adoration, and with bony hands all lifted toward heaven. Otherwise, something great could have resulted from his meeting with Greco. When Theotocopuli arrived in Toledo, hardly twenty years had elapsed from the time that Ignatius of Loyola, his thigh broken and rebroken, had dragged himself to the altar of the Virgin to lay his sword upon it. Don John of Austria was nailing the banner of Christ to the topmast of the vessels which he was to lead to Lepanto. Teresa of Avila had just finished burning the last ashes of her flesh. For forty years she had welcomed the flame of the south, the scorching of the rocks, the odor of the orange trees, the cruelty of the soldiers, the sadism of the executioners, and the taste of the Host and of wine in order to torture and purify, in the fire of all her senses turned back toward her inner life, the heart she offered to her divine lover. Within the country, the Holy Office never allowed the fire to die out around any stake. Abroad, the captains, dressed in black, led their lean men, fed on gunpowder, to fight, rosary in hand, against the Reformation. The Duke of Alba deluged Flanders with fire and blood. The flames of torture and of battles attested, over all the earth, the fidelity of Spain to her vow.

The Cretan, who still saw in the depths of his memory the red and narrow gleam lighting up the icons in the orthodox chapels and whom Titian and Tintoretto had initiated into painting in their Venice, where the bed of purple and of flowers was already prepared for royal deaths, brought into this tragic world the fervor of ardent natures in which all the new forms of sensuality and of violence enter in tongues of fire. In reality, this young man of twenty-five years was old in his civilization, a thing full of neuroses centuries old, and subjugated by the first shock of the savage aspect of the country in which he was arriving and by the accentuated character of the people amid whom he was going to live. Toledo is made of granite. The landscape round about is terrible, of a deadly aridity, with its low bare hills filled with shadow in their hollows, with the rumble of its caged torrent, and with its huge trailing clouds. On sunny days it shines with flame, it is as livid as a cadaver in winter. Only occasionally and slightly is the greenish uniformity of the stone touched by the pale silver of the olive trees, by the light note of pink or blue from a painted wall. But there is no rich land, no leafy foliage: it is a fleshless skeleton in which nothing living moves, a sinister absolute where the soul has no other refuge than the wild solitude or cruelty and misery as it awaits death.

With this pile of granite, this horror, and this somber flame, Greco painted his pictures. It is a terrifying and splendid painting, gray and black, lit with green reflections. In the black clothing there are only two gray notes, the ruffs and the cuffs from which bony heads and pale hands come forth. Soldiers or priests—it is the last effort of the Catholic tragedy. Already they wear mourning. They are burying a warrior in his steel, and now look only to heaven. Their gray faces have the aridity of the stone. Their protruding bones, their dried skin, and their eyes, deeply sunken in their hollow orbits, look as if they were seized and shaped by metal pincers. Everything which defines the skull and the face is pursued over the hard surfaces, as if the blood no longer coursed through the already withered skin. One would say that a cord of nerves went forth from the vital center and was drawing the skin toward it. Only the eye is burning and fixed, expressing the will to reach the fire of death by dint of rendering life sterile. One follows the glance inward, it leads to the implacable heart. The mouths are like slits. The hair is thin through fasting, asceticism, and the slow asphyxiation rising from braziers burning in closed rooms. The wind of the desert seems to have passed over the scene.

When the red robe flooded with gold and the golden miter of a bishop spread forth, on backgrounds uniformly gray and black, the sumptuous memories brought back from Venice and the Orient, one would say that the painter was playing with his power of controlling the voices of the world in order to give more accent to the dull splendor of the gray faces, and to the harmonies of death and dust which mount like a hymn to the silent joy of offering in sacrifice to the divine spirit of life all the joys which it spreads before us. Remorse at having been born pursues the painter until the end, but when he expresses it in his art, the magnificence which it takes on avenges him for his terrors. Whatever the elements of the higher equilibrium which a great artist pursues—almost always unknown to himself—whether the most completely purified mysticism or the most violent sensualism guides him, he is not a great artist unless he realizes through them those mysterious symphonies in which both the matter and the soul of life seem present and mingled forever with all eternity. It is not necessary that above Greco's groups, spectral angels of superhuman size should arise, or that, behind his drooping Christ there should be enormous grayish clouds which isolate Him from the universe; the somber glow is everywhere, in the raised foreheads, the hollow orbits, the arid earth, and the habits of black velvet. It is in him, the ardent center of all these things, a profound and living poem fashioned by the encounter of obedience and liberty, of the broad and voluptuous world whence he comes with the harshest soil and the most tragic people of Europe, of the severest spirit of western Catholicism with completely disordered memories of Eastern orthodoxy.

Never did the Christian ideal express, with greater anxiety, its impotence to divide life into two sections. The spirit tries to tear itself away, but in vain. What is beautiful in the divine forms is always borrowed from the science he possessed of terrestrial form, and it always returns to them. At the end of his life he painted like one in a hallucination, in a kind of ecstatic nightmare, where the preoccupation with expressing the spirit alone pursued him. Deformation appears in his pictures more and more, lengthening the bodies, attenuating the fingers, and hollowing the masks. His blues, his winelike reds, and his greens seem lit by some livid reflection sent to him from the near-by tomb and the hell caught sight of from eternal bliss. He died before realizing the form of the dream which haunted him, perhaps because he himself was too old, and no longer found in his hardened bones and in his irritated and weak nerves the power he had possessed for seeking, in love of the world's appearances, the means of comparing and supporting his vision. And yet, what an effort! When we enter one of those Spanish churches where, on days of service, the gleam of the tapers and the vapor of the incense make us forget for a moment the horror or vulgarity of the images of which we catch a glimpse, we must also carry on with ourselves one of those combats which leave us enervated and somewhat shaken with that intoxication in which the ecstasy of the paradise desired effaces the soul and the body of those who try to forget. He alone could see arms lifted as if to raise the weight of the heavens and to draw aside its veils. Standing at the foot of the Cross, he alone was able to pierce the shadow which rises from all sides like an accomplice to hide the murder; and it is with a terrible glance that he follows the phantom horsemen who enter a hollow road. He alone has seen among those who will to know no more of the earth, forms drawn out as if in prayer, aspiring wholly toward something higher, hands which seem prolonged into supernatural lights, drooping and emaciated trunks, and also young nude bodies which he cannot tear from the innocence of life, but around which circles a phosphorescent glow which comes no one knows whence.

At the remote origin of that invincible elegance which never left him, however much he was gripped by the need to express more than he could, one found the Greek, the Greek of the forgotten ages, the Hellene. The wraith of the gods which still wandered on the shores of the southern sea had drunk a strong wine from the golden cup of Venice and had permitted itself to be carried along, still not entirely consumed even by Greco, to the burning deserts of stone where the aridity of things offers the mind no other avenue than that of death. It was that wraith—it could not die, it had survived the twelve centuries of constraint imposed by the degenerating Orient upon the Byzantine images—over which one would say that there mounts a long pale flame, like those wandering fires which dance upon the marshes. It is the witness of the impotence of genius to detach itself from its roots, and of the majesty which it assumes when it consents to nourish itself from them. Greco must have fasted and worn sackcloth. He must have followed, with bare feet, the processions across the powdered granite with his ankles cut by shackles, bearing a heavy metal cross, and masked with a monk's hood in order not to have the pride of his humiliation. He must have passed the burning nights, when passion is compelled to roll in the torture of voluntary chastity, so that in the morning he might carry his exasperated strength into the ever-livid faces intent on heaven and into the garments, always black, which bear witness to our grief at having lived. No matter. He had a daughter. He loved children and women, and ever the burning shadow and the bare landscape. His whole will to be superior to life crossed and recrossed the powerful center of the life which, when one has felt its burning, sends its lava into death itself and the eternal shadows and the dust of bones.

Beyond existence, when our memory is burnt out, there is, to be sure, nothing of us that remains. However, if somewhere there is a place where shadows wander, if in some sinister valley there are cadavers which stand upright and living specters which have not yet lost their form, Domenico Theotocopuli alone, after Dante, has entered there. One would say that he is exploring a dead planet, that he is descending into extinct volcanoes where ashes accumulate and a pale half-veiled moon sheds its light. But all of that has been seen by him. Spain presents such aspects under the snow, in winter, or in the torrid days when the sun has calcined the grass, when there is nothing more in space than the vibration of silence coming from nowhere, to lay its deathlike weight upon the heart, and when livid mirages and gloomy metallic lakes are formed and effaced upon the seared horizon.

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