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El Greco, (Domenikos Theotopoulus, 1541-1614)
View of Toledo
oil on canvas, 47 3/4 x 42 3/4 inches
signed (lower right in Greek): Domenikos Theotokopoulus made this

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, H.O. Havenmeyer Collection,
Bequest of Mrs H.O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.6)
photograph © 1992 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jack Barth

The View of Toledo


          “Self-lost, and in a moment will create
          Another World . . .”
                              – John Milton, Paradise Lost

El Greco’s The View of Toledo at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is not a painting of the state of grace already fully realized, like Bellini’s wondrous St. Francis in Ecstasy. Instead, we are in the middle of a hallucination, in the anxious peripheries of revelation. The sky is doubt, the landscape ambiguity, and the source of light a riddle.
          As you travel through the painting, you realize the artist is taking you from the proximities of the shrub beneath your feet, sweeping past the stone architecture. You are at once pulled by the weight of weather, human events, history, botany, a familiar world—time-bound, color-bound, language- bound—up to the prospect of the skyline that is Toledo. The painting, at this point, abruptly stops. The skyline is a horizon. There is no beyond. There is only the above, leading the eye by way of the church spire. The church spire is a pointer, an indicator, to the light that creates the scene. The overall time of day is indeterminate—nighttime or day, twilight or dawn—but you do know that something supernatural is eclipsing the scene.
          This is the spot of time in which the world of weather and human events stops. You have reached the terminus of earthly experience, even earthly potential. There is a potential for beyond, but here, the eye is held by the spot of time and cast skyward. El Greco takes the scene, arrests it, holds it, as if the totality of his vision of Toledo is ultimately being controlled from beyond itself. Then, through a series of silvery gleams of white light and the geography of billowy, downy clouds, he abstracts you from real time to the realm of timelessness. The approach to the realm of the spirit opens the only way it can: through the senses. The entire painting unfolds in a shadow, an overshadow, which confesses to the mystery of religious illumination, toward the opening in the sky, an oculus in the celestial dome. At this point, your whole being becomes absorbed in a sensorium of time and place. As Thoreau would say, it is a light to behold but to dwell not in.

JACK BARTH is an artist who lives in New York. His work can be found in a number
of public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art and the New York
Public Library.

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