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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Self-Portrait of an Era: 4. Civilization

El Greco's St Martin and the Beggar might -- as it was often the case with refined Renaissance art -- deal with a different subject than the nominal one. The man on the left, naked and with a skin a little darker than the Saint's, may represent an "Indian" of America and/or of India; in fact, in early depictions, natives were showed with the same facial features as the Westerners.
If the hypothesis is true, then the painting summarizes the 16th century Spanish, and European in general, ideology of conquest. In their 'lower side,' "savages" were conceived as not much more than beasts (the beggar's legs mirror the horse's hind legs); but in the higher faculties, they had the possibility to join both salvation in Christ and the pros of Western civilization.
El Greco, who used to read Aristotle in Greek, seems to have taken St Martin as a synthesis of the anthropological virtues par excellence, with their respective Renaissance standard symbols: Prudence (the pensive expression), Fortitude (the armor), Justice (the sword), Temperance (the bridle, the stirrup).

It would be misleading to see this as racism in its strict sense. "Racism" is based on some allegedly scientific doctrine about the origin of Man, as would be worked out in the 18th-19th centuries. During the Renaissance, the Western sense of superiority was not a matter of literature & art, not even a matter of "race"; it was -- as Camões poignantly puts it in The Lusiads -- simply a matter of polícia e fortaleza. The stronger takes control, period.
Artists especially in Venice: Veronese, Albrecht Dürer, etc., made beautiful portraits of African women and men who were bought and employed as "slaves," in practice as maids and valets.