The Origins of El Greco

Icon Painting in Venetian Crete

November 17, 2009-February 27, 2010

"This show has some of the most enwrapping and enrapturing art in town, framed by alert scholarship, a lambent environment, and a score of Byzantine music, arranged and performed by the Greek ensemble En Chordais, that will soak into your system and stay there." 

                                                      - Holland Cotter, The New York Times

"Seeing the known anew is the grace of every great exhibition. In front of The Adoration of the Magi, by Michael Damaskenos at “The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete,” at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York City, this belief strikes a particularly strong note." 

                                                        - Patricia Miranda, Artes Magazine

"Against the background of such a richly variegated genealogy, the handful of El Greco's paintings on view, though still miraculous, emerge as a vivid reflection of his lifelong artistic journey. "                  

                                                - Mary Tompkins Lewis, Wall Street Journal

"His last work in the exhibition, The Coronation of the Virgin (1603-05) - a convocation of tumbling putti surrounding God the Father, Christ, and Mary - is an expressionist triumph of flashing light and swirling movement."

                                                       - Ann Landi, ARTnews

Curated for the Onassis Cultural Center by Dr. Anastasia Drandaki, Curator of the Byzantine Collection at the Benaki Museum, Athens, The Origins of El Greco presents 46 exceptional works from public and private collections in Greece, Europe, the United States and Canada, many of which will be traveling to the U.S. for the first time.

According to Dr. Drandaki, “The icon painters in the workshops on Crete in the 15th and 16th centuries were renowned for their skill in painting impeccable panels not only in the traditional Byzantine manner but also in a style inspired by Western models. Although a dialogue with Western painting was not new to Byzantine art, a number of special factors undoubtedly helped to encourage the immersion of Cretan artists in Western iconography and style, especially after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453.” The Origins of El Greco will illuminate these fascinating developments as seen in rare panel paintings that span the course of two centuries.

Exhibition Highlights
At the core of the exhibition were eleven superb icons from the Collection of Ecclesiastical Art, Saint Catherine of the Sinaites, Heraklion, Crete. Founded around the 10th century as a dependency of the monastery of the same name at Mount Sinai, the Church of St. Catherine in Heraklion supported a large and learned monastic community by the 16th century and since 1967 has housed a highly important collection of Orthodox icons and religious objects. Ten of the panels from the Collection of St. Catherine have left Crete only once before, in 1993, for an exhibition in Athens. The eleventh of this group, a Last Supper by Michael Damaskenos, has been outside of Greece only once, for a 1999 El Greco exhibition that traveled to Athens, Madrid and Rome.


Pieta HermitageFour icons in the exhibition from the State Hermitage Museum—Pietà (from the collection of Empress Maria Alexandrovna, wife of Tsar Alexander II), Resurrection and Noli Me Tangere, The Virgin Nikopoios with Saints Athanasius, Spyridon, Marina, and Roch, and Saint Demetrios on Horseback—have never traveled at all since entering the St. Petersburg collection in 1930. A Deesis by Nikolaos Tzafouris, from the Antivouniotissa Museum in Corfu, is also traveling for the first time.

As another unprecedented feature of the exhibition, the Onassis Cultural Center will reunite two wings of a triptych by El Greco—a Baptism of Christ belonging to the Municipality of Herakleion, and an Adoration of the Shepherds belonging to Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario—which have only recently been identified as having once belonged to the same triptych.

Two other exhibition highlights are a famous early painting by El Greco, The Dormition of the Virgin, which travels very rarely from its church in Ermoupolis and will be lent by the Metropolis of Syros; and a late, Spanish-period work by El Greco, The Coronation of the Virgin, on view in New York for the first time courtesy of the collection of the Onassis Cultural Center’s parent institution, the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation.


Exhibition Information
Among the Greek lenders to the exhibition were the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, Athens; Antivouniotissa Museum, Corfu; Benaki Museum, Athens; Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens; the Holy Metropolis, Church of the Dormition of the Virgin, Ermoupolis, Syros; Collection of Ecclesiastical Art, Saint Catherine of the Sinaites, Heraklion, Crete; National Gallery of Athens; Paul and Alexandra Canellopoulos Museum, Athens; Public Library of Lefkada; Municipality of Heraklion, Crete; and Marianna Latsis Collection, Athens. Among the lenders in Europe, the United States and Canada will be the Hellenic Institute of Venice; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; and Queen's University, Kingston, Canada.

The exhibition was organized in collaboration with the Benaki Museum in Athens and the Archdiocese of Crete and is exclusively funded by the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA). The exhibition will be on view at the Onassis Cultural Center, 645 Fifth Avenue, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday. 

El Greco Exhibition Catalogue
Accompanying the exhibition is an illustrated 132-page catalogue, featuring entries on each painting in the exhibition and essays by curator Dr. Anastasia Drandaki; Olga Gratziou, Professor of Byzantine Art History, University of Crete; and Nicos Hadjinicolaou, Professor Emeritus of Art History, University of Crete.