El Greco, Portrait of Hortensio Felix Paravicino, c. 1609, Oil on Canvas, 44 1/8 x 33 7/8 inches

El Greco’s painting of 17th century Trinitarian preacher and poet Hortensio Felix Paravicino portrays a man of extreme sensitivity, its directness and compositional simplicity suggesting a degree of intelligence and psychological nuance on a different order from most other El Greco portraits.  He painted many portraits, but this is one of the few where he paints more than just the head and upper body of his sitter.  And he makes some distinctive compositional choices that stand out as more provocative and metaphorically rich. What was he doing here? Was he giving us a sagacious portrait of an actual man, someone who was himself wise? Or was he trying to paint something greater than the man himself, something tantalizing, surprising and possibly inspiring on an entirely different level of contemplation?

Fra Paravicino is not a generic or neutral subject. Although a connoisseur of art, he attempted to censor nudity in painting, stating, “The finest paintings are the greatest threat: burn the best of them.” These are extreme views even for 17th century Spain, especially in light of the fact that the King himself had a collection of such works, as did many of his courtiers. Those words of Paravicino’s were never published in the pamphlet he wrote them for, and one wonders how much El Greco was aware of them. Nevertheless, he employs a number of mechanisms that subtly suggest what kind of man Fra Paravicino might have been, or conversely what El Greco might have wanted him to be. 

The painting is starkly lit, with a subdued color palette that, on the face of it, reads primarily black and white. Compositionally, it is divided in half with the upper and lower body bisected at the half way point by the bottom edge of Paravicino’s black chasuble, suggesting an inherent split — either in the man himself, between his upper and lower selves, or in his belief system, between higher and lower (or baser) realms.  Furthermore, El Greco creates an almost perfect square arising from the top of that bisecting line, by conflating the rectangular back of Paravicino’s chair with his chasuble, suggesting the ideal of a rational space in which this man exists, or at least the rational space of a higher realm.  The extreme contrast between the white cowl framing his head and the black background works to further this reading of a man set apart from the concerns of a lower order of existence. There is a stark suggestion that this man’s sensorial and intellectual capacities exist on a higher plane than the rest of his body.

The upper half of the painting is also broken up into realms of higher and lower existence.  Paravicino’s eyes line up with the top edge of his chair back but are positioned just below the line break separating the chair from its background.  By placing Paravicino’s eyes at that level, El Greco suggests that the preacher exists sensorially within the realm of the earthbound chair, not in the realm beyond or above, personified by the background. His forehead, however – representing the mind, our conceptual apparatus for perceiving the divine — is firmly situated in that upper realm.  El Greco emphasizes this theme of separation—head from body, conceptual realm from sensorial realm, upper half from lower half, white from black – to suggest that this preacher is a man of distinction, with a calculating intelligence and rich array of higher faculties.

The lower half of the painting is where things get interesting.  In this lower realm El Greco explores a reading of Fra Paravicino that is proto-Jungian in how it presages the idea of merging the male and female in higher consciousness individuals. While Fra Paravicino should be seated, given the usual circumstances of such a pose, El Greco has depicted him instead in a weird enigmatic posture, the vertical thrust of his white robe suggesting more standing than sitting, although his arms are clearly resting on the arms of his chair.  Furthermore, the position of his left hand is tantalizing, inserted in a sexually suggestive way into the small book, which is atop a larger book that his other fingers are holding onto. The large book is resting against his hip, which effectuates a deep wrinkle in his robe that suggests a vaginal form, the crevice of which meanders down to the bottom of his robe, where a veritable hole appears. That reading is made more emphatic by the black and red cross on Fra Paravicino’s robe that itself looks more like a wound than an insignia, due to the marked highlighting around the cross that creates negative space. But, most significantly, the combined shape of his white robe, sleeves and hands unmistakably suggests the shape of female fallopian tubes.

Now, I do not know what El Greco knew of female reproductive anatomy. But this resemblance has always struck me as so self-evident that I do wonder whether he was suggesting that Fra Paravicino was a man existing on a higher plane of being, where distinctions between male and female fell away.  Was El Greco really proto-Jungian, anticipating the dissolution of the binary that we are now experiencing in our own culture, which one hopes might signal a shift towards a more capacious understanding of what human beings are capable of? There is no way to answer that question with certainty. But El Greco was a great artist, whose imagery has the power to take us to a higher plane of contemplation, and the question has long nagged at me: was Fra Paravicino himself worthy of that kind of complex and layered portrayal, or did El Greco simply use him to say something both simple and profound about what it is to be human? Either way, the portrait is a gift, an image of wisdom that continues to resonate.

Julie Heffernan, Self Portrait with Lock, 2018, Oil on canvas, 68 x 58 inches


Julie Heffernan is a Professor of Fine Arts at Montclair State University, represented by Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco. Heffernan is a Board Member of the National Academy of Design. Her work has been reviewed by major publications including the New York Times and Artforum; and in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum and VMFA among others.