I would love to see this exhibit:
At monasteries on Mount Athos in northern Greece, you wake in the night to the sound of Greek Orthodox monks chanting Byzantine prayers. It’s an unforgettable sound, distant and unearthly, but also inside you, like a buzz in the blood.
The painter Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco, almost certainly heard it growing up far to the south on the island of Crete. You can hear it today when you visit “The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete,” a lustrous exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Center in Midtown Manhattan
With its extraordinary ensemble of almost 50 religious images, most of them painted on Crete — seven by El Greco and some of the rest by artists whose names are not known, ...it roughs out the texture of a specific, cosmopolitan, East-meets-West island culture.
Most of the population was Greek Orthodox, but economic power was in the hands of a Roman Catholic minority. Local artists necessarily catered to both, turning out Byzantine-style icons for one, late Gothic devotional paintings for the other and, increasingly, synthesizing the two modes....
By the 15th century, painting in Crete had moved far beyond categories like Byzantine and Gothic. Artists had absorbed Renaissance naturalism and were pushing toward Mannerism, inventing, stealing and collaging motifs as they went.
Wonderful writing by Holland Cotter:
a 1603 oil study for a “Coronation of the Virgin” ... The composition has an iconlike symmetry. The figures, in their expressive abstraction, are as much Byzantine as Mannerist. And the picture scintillates with light, illusionistically painted rather than reflected from gold. Even cherubs tumbling around like kittens can distract from the picture’s nuclear focus: this is an image meant to promote, as music can, time-suspending, space-vivifying contemplation.
Exactly this psycho-sensual dynamic lies at the heart of how icons, as spiritual utensils, function. I wish the exhibition made something of this; had taken, as its third theme, the reality of these objects, not just as historical artifacts illustrating the progress of a culture or a famous career, but also as living and interactive energy sources, designed to embody and radiate charisma.
But that’s a major subject. It needs a full-dress show of its own. Maybe some day we’ll get it.... Miraculously, admission to all of this is free.