Beyond the Image:
Form and Iconography in El Greco’s The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind
Artists create for a variety of reasons; however, a vast number of those who choose to create works of art do so with the idea of telling a story. This is especially true of the painter El Greco, who lived and created during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (Archer 86). El Greco’s work reflects the practice of many others who painted during his time: making use of artistic elements which represented more than merely the image one sees on first observation.
El Greco’s The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind is typical of his numerous spiritual paintings: it is filled with captivating figures, brilliant colors, structures that recede, and a liberal use of sky, all of which combine to enhance the visual image the painter uses to create his story (Archer 89).
The subject matter of The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind is that of Christ using his touch to heal a man, and based on the title of the piece, it can be presumed that the man being healed by Christ is blind. The man and Christ are not the only figures in this work, and as one views the canvass of the oil painting, one notices several groupings of people adding to the significance of the story being told by El Greco.
The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind features three main gatherings of individuals: one left (with Christ), one right, and one lower center. There are other persons in the background, but they are not as clearly defined as are those who appear in the painting’s forefront. The purpose the background images seem to serve is two-fold: in the near background, a couple can be seen sitting on a step, and they appear to be embracing after one of the two has been healed by Christ. Farther back, people look to be running back and forth as if hurrying to alert their loved ones about the activities taking place in the town square. El Greco seems to be capturing not just a miracle performed by Christ, but the spreading of the news of that miracle as well.
Appearing front and center in the piece is a couple observing the miracle of Christ’s healing the blind man, and the awe is apparent on the face of both the man and the woman. Symbolically, this couple is bearing witness to Christ’s performance of miracles.
Placed slightly behind the couple and on the painting’s right side is a gathering of individuals all but one of whom is bent toward Christ, head bowed, and eyes closed as if in reverence. Standing in front of the group is one of two individuals who are easily associated with Christ: both wear the matching, holy, red attire like that worn by Him. At the rear of this group is a man who seems to be questioning the rationale of the gathering. He gazes in Christ’s direction as if he had been sent to judge the validity of the event. Looking closely, his hair, his clothing, and his age differ from the others who are present. He also appears to have a neck piece reminiscent of royalty or service in the royal guard. Symbolically, we see not only the reverence of Christ, but the upcoming political conflict that will lead (in part) to Christ’s crucifixion.
Set a bit back and to the left of the central couple is the grouping of people that includes Christ and the blind man. Unlike the grouping to the right, this ensemble appears to be in a state not of reverence, but of confusion. It seems that as the people to Christ’s left (i.e. from the painting’s right) are ushered though and healed, they pass to Christ’s right (i.e. to the painting’s left). Having just been healed, they are in a state of shock, and in an attempt to calm them, the second of Christ’s assistants (also in the holy color red), points skyward as if explaining how these simple miracles pale when compared to the miracle of Heaven. Symbolically, the passage from one “side” to the other; specifically, from the left (i.e. wrong) side of Christ to the right (i.e. correct) side of Christ is indicative of one who accepts salvation.
The weight of the entire painting is directed to the left (i.e. Christ’s right) and towards the gathering of people that includes Him. All of the buildings are placed on the left side of the image, and the receding perspective of the work draws one’s eye continually left: to “view” the miracle Christ is performing while also drawing the viewer’s eyes toward Heaven.
Perhaps the most powerful effect the groupings of people have within El Greco’s The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind is to create the illusion of the presence of a cross. Looking at the space behind the groups, one can see the lower (i.e. “T”) portion of the cross implied by the background and the space above the figures to both the left and right sides.
Light also plays a role in the story El Greco tells. While the groups of people on the left and right of the foreground are muted and in shadow, Christ and his associates are bathed in white light that is reflected off of their clothing. One of two other points of illumination is the woman in the painting’s center, front. The woman who, hand over heart, seems most enthralled by the acts she is bearing witness to, seems bathed in the glow of Christ. The last point of illumination that is telling occurs as one looks toward the representation of Heaven as seen in the painting’s background. While the farther back a scene goes the darker it logically should become, in El Greco’s world, the closer one gets to the representative Heaven, the brighter becomes the light.
El Greco’s The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind captures more than a static moment in time during which a miracle is being performed. The painting tells a story that is filled with Christian iconography—powerful symbology that remains recognizable four centuries later. El Greco’s image speaks to the viewer of the power of Christ, Heaven, the afterlife, salvation, reverence, and the painter managed to accomplish this by combining figures, background, and colors that represent more than just what they appear to be on their surface.
Archer, Stanley. “El Greco.” Great Lives from History: The Renaissance & Early Modern Era. Vol. 1. Ed. Christina J. Moose. Pasadena: Salem, 2005. 86-97.
El Greco. The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind. Circa 1570. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 16 Oct. 2006, <http://humanitiesweb.org/