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Beauty,Spring 2005
Third Web Papers
On Serendip

"Re-creating a Work of Art"

Tanya Corder

Initially entering the Barnes, I felt a little apprehensive. Although I had already decided which painting I was going to read, I had no idea how to approach it. I had never really contemplated over a painting; rather, I would leave it immediately after my initial awe and observations. I had very little experience with art growing up in the Marshall Islands, and felt that I had no authority or any qualifications to judge a piece. Despite my ignorance and inexperience, I decided that I would first sit down to reflect on El Greco's "Apparition of the Virgin and Child to Saint Hyacinth," and then compare my personal reflections to that of an art expert or historian. That way I could make up for any of the insecurities in my interpretation.

I was initially drawn to the piece by something I was not able to put my finger on. It was as if the painting embraced me and an intimate bubble formed around us. It was then I realized that I was drawn to it because of familiarity of the style. It hit me and without looking up the name or artist, I knew it had to be the work of El Greco. El Greco is one of the very few artists I am familiar with because I had to research him for my high school Spanish class. I found his style, which uniquely his own, and his religious fervor to be admirable. His work is so expressive, personal, and serious, and his passion for art and religion is made clear in every piece. I have yet to find a piece of his that I do not find esthetically stimulating.

The first thing I noticed was that the piece is clear and defined near the bottom, but becomes more and more distorted and blurred as you move up. The floor tiles background pillar are clearly defined, the robe is realistically and evenly shaded, and Hyacinth's facial features are very detailed. As you ascend beyond the cloud, you notice the statue in the background is dark with unclear features and the image of Mary and Jesus are un-humanly distorted. I interpreted this as a movement from the reality of life on earth to the spiritual medium of heaven. Because one must choose to believe if heaven exists or not and because there is no way of clearly describing it, El Greco does not to attempt to define it for us. He leaves it distorted so that our own perceptions of heaven will not be trounced by his.

His use of light came off to me as religious symbolism as well. The light being emitted from the Virgin Mary and is the main light source in the scene and symbolizes purity, truth, and righteousness. The rest of the room is dark reflecting the darkness of a sinful world. The lighting highlights Hyacinth distinguishing him in a world of darkness. The lighting also adds to the aesthetics of the painting. Too much light and clarity allows for too much scrutiny, but a dim setting seems to keep hidden all blemishes of the scene and promotes comfortableness and complacency.

El Greco also uses this lighting to add form and shape to the objects in an aesthetically realistic manner. The creases in Hyacinth's robe and Mary's garments are so beautifully shaded that I wanted to feel the cloth. The hardness of the floor is easily perceived as well, and lastly the way he depicted the cloud made it seem as though Mary was not weightless, but that the cloud was concrete and holding her up. All of these perceptions were invoked simply by the shading and shapes of the objects.

His figures were probably the most beautiful yet troubling aspect for me. Hyacinth is painted in the El Grecian elongated style. I perceived the elongated fingers, pillars, and faces to be free from gravitational restraint. They seemed graceful, flowing and beautiful. They also came off to me as stretched in a tug-o-war between the spiritual realm and earth. However, what troubled me were the faces and forms of Mary and the baby Jesus. Mary appears exhausted and ghost-like, while the child seems unporportional and demonic. I began to question why El Greco would want to portray these figures in such a way. I came to the conclusion that these figures do not belong on earth and their descending down to earth has morphed their form. It is sort of like in movies when characters go through time or space portals and their bodies are disfigured.

Meditating over the piece, I immediately began to question so many aspects that I had initially overlooked. The piece depicted the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus appearing before St. Hyacinth. I had initially thought this scene to be some depiction of an apparition that actually occurred to Saint Hyacinth. I thought there would be some story behind her appearance similar to the apparitions of Noah's or Moses'. However, as my search prolonged, I discovered that Hyacinth was a pretty nameless saint. He was basically a Polish Dominican disciple who helped spread Catholicism through Poland, and was later named the patron saint of Archdioceses of Krakow . I could not understand why El Greco would choose to paint such a obscure saint when there are a plethora of more significant religious figures. Then, I realized that he died on August 15th, the day of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother or what Catholics recognize as the day that Mary "assumes her place in heaven with Jesus Christ". Knowing that both Mary and St. Hyacinth entered heaven on the same day helped to tie together my observations in a way that clarified the meaning of the piece. I came to the conclusion that this painting was to glorify Hyacinth's piety and righteousness by showing that the Virgin Mary personally came down to personally escort him home into heaven. His facial expression and hand positioning seems to show his surprise with the honor and reflect his modesty. He seems to be saying "You're here for me?" At first, I had thought his fear was due to the fact that a spirit was manifested in front of him, but now I feel that he just can't believe such an honor was bestowed upon him. The honor of the Virgin Mary as an escort, the honor of sainthood, and finally the honor of El Greco's painting.

After my analysis, I then decided to verify my claim by finding a trained experts discourse on the piece. However, my efforts to find a publicized interpretation were fruitless, I took a different approach to determining the validity of my reflections. In other words, instead of checking my answers, I decided to figure out the appropriate approach to the problem so that I could get at least partial credit. I began rereading Dewey and Barnes' essays to outline their approaches to art and try to determine if I mimicked them in my own evaluation. However, I discovered something absolutely enlightening. Dewey states, "A work of art no matter how old and classic is actually, not just potentially, a work of art only when it lives in some individualized experience... But as a work of art, it is recreated every time it is esthetically experienced...[and] is universal because it continuously inspire[s] new personal realizations in experience"(108-9). This made me feel a lot more confident in my own interpretation. I began to feel that my experiencing of the piece was like casting a vote in the election deciding whether it qualified as a work of art. However, in this election, anyone can vote, even children. And all it needs to qualify is one vote, so every vote matters.

I also came to realize that an art historian or analyst does not interpret the meaning of a piece to inform the world why the piece is universally considered a work of art; they are merely trying to figure out which features repeatedly invoke personal experiences in others because it is the accumulation of personal experiences that make it universal. It's universality just means it is more likely to invoke such an experience. The art historian cannot dictate our feelings towards a certain piece, but can only try to predict why the piece invokes such sentiments. Therefore, I am perfectly content with my personal feelings and interpretation. I do not need affirmation from the art experts, nor do I need instruction on how to read a painting.

Lastly, I came to some basic conclusions regarding the aesthetic aspects of my experience. Initial stimulation, familiarity, reflection, evoked emotions, and a conclusive interpretation or enlightenment all made the experience beautiful to me. Although I had found the piece beautiful on my first trip to the Barnes, it was not until the second trip that I came to fully indulge in its beauty. To me, there's no such thing as love at first sight. There may be an initial attraction, but it is not until I have come to fully understand the other person do I feel this feeling of love. The same holds true for beauty.

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