The contemplative skulls of El Greco

El Greco: Skulls of contemplation

Need a moment to quiet your busy life and meditate on your mortality?

Meditate on some skulls.

  • Do you love skulls? Then you’ll love the El Greco exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.
  • Do you find skulls creepy? You’ll discover that these compelling paintings will give you a whole new appreciation for the depth of symbolism within skulls.

When I think of skulls, I normally think of a troublemaker with a skull emblazoned on a black t-shirt. Someone who doesn’t give a care about anything. The Punisher, pirates, and outlaw bikers. Rebels who takes matters into their own hands and do whatever they want.

Skulls of contemplation

However, these skulls in El Greco’s paintings are not surrounded by flames of destruction. El Greco’s skulls are accompanied by quiet, contemplative figures.

On the table next to the skulls is a book of devotions, a jar of embalming perfume, and a crucifix. Instead of creating sin and ruckus, these symbols are absolving sin. These symbols sitting next to the skulls are the opposite of rebellion. They are symbols of sacrifice.

  • Jesus on the cross paying for all sins of the world.
  • The embalming perfume confirms Jesus’ death.
  • The book of devotions is the study of Jesus’ death.

This sacrifice happens because of human’s rebellion. The sacrifice pays the price for our dissent.

Rebellion still exists in the paintings

Despite these paintings being the opposite of rebellion, they still contain elements of defiance. The figures are extremely stylized with long forms, dramatic lighting, and vivid colors. The paintings feel kinda bad ass. Especially considering at El Greco’s time, nobody else was painting like this. El Greco got himself inside the Roman Catholic elite circles. And then got himself booted out of the circle for some “thing” he did.

“[El Greco] knows that there’s a lot of wealth around the papal court in Rome, so he picks up and moves to Rome and has a pretty good entry into noble Roman society – he is given an introduction and is taken under the wing into the court of a papal nephew, Cardinal Alexander Farnese,” Long said.

“And he did something to tick off Alexander Farnese. We have a very apologetic, yet still arrogant letter from El Greco to Cardinal Farnese saying, ‘I’m sorry I did that thing, but I don’t think it should have bothered you.’ But we don’t know what that thing was that offended the cardinal, but at any rate he gets kicked out of the palace.”

From WTTW’s 10 Things to Know about El Greco (Including His Brazen Offer to Repaint the Sistine Chapel)

This El Greco sounds like quite the character. Artsy’s description of El Greco states, “El Greco’s expressionistic use of vivid color, swirling compositions, and plastic forms influenced generations of artists from Velázquez to Picasso to Cézanne.” Velázquez, Picasso, and Cézanne are all certainly art world rebels.

El Greco: the show for the contemplative rebel

One room in the exhibition features a handful of saints looking at skulls. These particular paintings are extremely resonating with their contemplative nature. Instead of skulls of rebellion, these are skulls of meditation. Quiet. Thoughtful. Humbling.

"Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation" by El Greco
“Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation” by El Greco
Detail of skull, crucifix, and devotion book in "Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation" by El Greco
Detail of skull, crucifix, and devotion book in “Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation” by El Greco

Saint Francis is here accompanied by a book representing his devotional studies and a skull symbolizing the inevitability of death. As he kneels in prayer, he focuses his attention on a sculpture of the crucified Christ. Saint Francis serves as a model for the viewer, who is prompted to meditate upon his feature the way that he meditates on Christ.

A portion of the wall caption for “Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation”
"The Penitent Magdalene" by El Greco
“The Penitent Magdalene” by El Greco
Detail of skull and vase of oil in "The Penitent Magdalene" by El Greco
Detail of skull and vase of oil in “The Penitent Magdalene” by El Greco

Her dramatic gaze toward heaven and the skull on the rock beside her signal that she is contemplating life after death. She also appears with her most common attribute: the vase of oil she used to anoint Christ.

Part of the wall caption for “The Penitent Magdalene”
"Saint Francis and Brother Leo Meditating on Death" by El Greco
“Saint Francis and Brother Leo Meditating on Death” by El Greco
Detail of skull "Saint Francis and Brother Leo Meditating on Death" by El Greco
Detail of skull “Saint Francis and Brother Leo Meditating on Death” by El Greco

[Saint Francis] and his companion, Brother Leo, meditate on a skull; the viewer is invited to join them in contemplating this symbol of the universality of death.

From the wall caption on “Saint Francis and Brother Leo Meditating on Death”

Skulls and death are following me

Well, snap. These paintings are really hitting the nail on the head to contemplate death. Which for me was serendipitously timely. Just I walked out the door to see this show, I wrote and published a blog post about a book, “A beginner’s guide to the end: practical advice for living life and facing death”. The book sounds so interesting, I put it on hold with my local library, so I may dive into the topic of understanding the inevitability of death, and how to approach our gifted time on this planet.

Seeing this show, I was thankful I didn’t nearly die on the short walk from the Prudential Building to the Art Institute. The last time I walked to see a major exhibition opening at the Art Institute, it the first Monday of the Andy Warhol show. I bashed my head on a public sculpture, requiring three staples be put into my skull. (See, skulls again). There wasn’t many people outside at the time of the accident. If I had fainted from the blunt hit, I could have lost a lot of blood laying unconscious on the ground—and possibly die. Sooooooo, thankfully, I didn’t nearly die going to see this El Greco on the first Monday of the show. Although given the subject matter of the art, death was very much on mind at the show.

All these skulls and thoughts of death are following me. Especially among the time when coronavirus COVID-19 is breaking loose in America. My work building, the Prudential Building being the first building in downtown Chicago to have a tenant contract the virus.

To top that off, just last week, my favorite podcast talked about staring into the eyes of a skull and realizing your own mortality. (It’s something else that my favorite podcast just happened to talk about skulls. I subscribe to over 110+ podcasts, and of course, my most favorite one is the one that happens to talk about skulls at this moment)

Bible Project “Jesus on the Cursed Tree – Tree of Life E9“, at 56:20, Tim Mackie says:

All four Gospels have a little note about where Jesus was crucified. Golgotha, meaning Place of the Skull.

Then at 61:10 Tim and co-host Jonathan Collins explain:

A human skull. What a creepy image. It is. It’s mostly in museums where you see skulls. I’ve never actually seen a human skull out in the field. It’s always in a curated environment. If you see a skull in the field, you’d have to call the police.

And I think when you look at a skull, you are looking at the thing, that I am am looking from. When I look at a skull, it’s like a meta moment. Because you are like “My eyes are sitting in those holes looking out.” So you face your own mortality. Face your own future.

But then it makes you think of that story that the skull represents. That was a person. It’s an adult skull. It’s a whole life story of joy. Of pain. Of loss. And death.

And Jesus is hung upon a tree in the middle of two other trees, on top of a high place that looks like a skull. And there he allows himself to be bitten by the snake that has bitten everyone else who has failed the test, though that he has not.

Skulls as shockers, or skulls as reflection?

When looking at these paintings, it’s easy to focus on the skull. “WHOA! A SKULL.” A bit like Jonathan’s reaction. CALL THE COPS! But then Tim continues about how a skull makes you really pause and think about your mortality.

When you look closely at the El Greco skull paintings, notice the expression on the person’s face. Look at their hands. These are longing faces. These are prayerful hands.

Detail of face in "Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation" by El Greco
Detail of face in “Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation” by El Greco
Detail of face in "The Penitent Magdalene" by El Greco
Detail of face in “The Penitent Magdalene” by El Greco
Detail of face in "Saint Francis and Brother Leo Meditating on Death" by El Greco
Detail of face in “Saint Francis and Brother Leo Meditating on Death” by El Greco
Detail of hands in "The Penitent Magdalene" by El Greco
Detail of hands in “The Penitent Magdalene” by El Greco
Detail of hands in "Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation" by El Greco
Detail of hands in “Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation” by El Greco

You can see in these faces, and in these hands that these saints are carefully considering the meaning of the skull.

The El Greco show at the Art Institute of Chicago is amazing

If you have the chance to see the exhibit, please do it. El Greco: Ambition and Defiance is on display from March 7 to June 21, 2020. The show is an extra $7, but well worth it—especially for the room with the skull paintings. The entire show is quite an experience, especially how they designed the exhibit. Soon, I’ll be publishing a blog post about the Art Institute transformed the traditional Old Masters galleries into this dramatic somber space. (Sign up to get updates)

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