The Adoration of the Name of Jesus by El Greco

El Greco

The Adoration of the Name of Jesus, c.1577–79, Oil on canvas, 140 x 110 cm, Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid, Album / Art Resource, NY

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The Name of Salvation

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Believed to be El Greco’s first commission by the Spanish King Philip II, this painting is considered to be an allegory of the Holy League of 1571, formed by Spain, Venice, and the papacy against the Ottomans. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, widespread devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus reinforced the League’s mission (Blunt 1939: 58–68).

In the upper register, angels and saints hovering on clouds adore a shining Christogram, ‘IHS’ (from the Greek ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, ‘Jesus’).  The left of the lower register exhibits faithful members of the church militant, including portraits of Pope Pius V, King Philip II, and the Doge of Venice, among others. They are kneeling in awe of the sign above, ‘the name that is above every name’ (Philippians 2:9). Juxtaposed at the lower right, the gaping jaws of an enormous sea monster swallow the dead amidst burning flames, and in the background, souls appear under an archway through which they enter purgatory, though some fall into the fiery lake of the beast (Revelation 19:20).

The prominent depiction of death and hell in this painting is graphic and evocative, but the inclusion of the Leviathan is not unprecedented in scenes of the Last Judgement. The sea monster’s long visual history as a symbol of death or hell can be traced all the way back to the earliest Christian iconography, where it appears in connection with Jonah. In El Greco’s painting, a deliverance like Jonah’s is the reward of the faithful and repentant.

In the Gospels, Jesus repudiates those of his generation who are looking for a sign; their faith is much weaker than the Ninevites, who repented at the preaching of Jonah after his deliverance from the sea monster (Jonah 3:5). The importance of a faith which does not rely on visible proof or miraculous signs is reflected in El Greco’s painting, with the adoration of Christ’s name rather than his figure. Jesus refuses to give the people the sign they demand, but instead reveals to them a different kind of sign—a typological one: ‘For just as Jonah was … so will the Son of Man be (Matthew 12:39).

In El Greco’s painting, the risen Word beckons, while a fearsome death in the gaping maw of hell looms threateningly nearby. The prayers of the adoring faithful are thus given a sense of urgency and import, lest we forget the significance of Christ’s salvation.

 

References

Blunt, Anthony. 1939. ‘El Greco's “Dream of Philip II”: An Allegory of the Holy League’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 3.1/2: 58–69


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