In this month of November, let us be fascinated by Christ, model of all holiness, through a masterpiece of 16th century painting.
Sacred art could not fail to strive to represent the features of the Holy Face. The Incarnation of the Word of God, this unique historical fact which saw Christ inhabit this earth and travel it for 33 years, makes it possible to restore His holy humanity, inseparable from His divine person.
Domínikos Theotokópoulos, known as El Greco (1541-1614), often painted the Head of Christ, an exercise which he repeated in endeavoring to express the mystery of His Incarnation. The McNay Museum of Art in San Antonio, Texas, has a painting that dates from when the painter was still in Madrid. The pictorial work has all the features of a study or a model for other compositions, such as the later (around 1596) and more elaborate work owned by the Národní Gallery in Prague. The one we are contemplating dates from El Greco's early years in Spain, when he was still in Madrid, between 1579 and 1586.
This head of Christ is striking in its beauty and its seriousness, as if the painter wanted to invite us to contemplate it, and to follow his gaze. The eyes are the expression of the soul. Is it Christ in Gethsemane, where the Lord prayed with more ardor, while His soul is sad unto death? The face, the colors, the white and golden light that frames the face, the whiteness of the neck, the slightly half-open mouth: nothing seems to be able to distract Christ from His contemplation, from His prayer of anguish and agony, from His gaze towards His Father.
As in His body, the soul of Christ suffered. But in His higher reason, at His summit, He continued to be satiated with God, “a cause of delight and joy” (St. Thomas Aquinas): Christ, a pilgrim on this earth, enjoyed the beatific vision perfectly.
Everything in El Greco's portrait of Christ draws our gaze to His gaze, which invites us to seek the goods on High. The eyes of Jesus are as if fixed towards Heaven. The pupil is raised, the sclera is large and flooded with whiteness; a vertical ray of light illuminates the window of His soul.
“I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again I leave the world, and I go to the Father” (Jn 16:28). El Greco’s jewel is Jesus’ gaze drawing strength and consolation from Heaven.