Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen

The Trinity and the Adoration of the Name of Jesus

The Holy Trinity

Domenikos Theotokópoulos called El Greco (1541-1614). Museo Nacional del Prado – Madrid. 1577-1579.

The Adoration of the Name of Jesus

Domenikos Theotokópoulos called El Greco (1541-1614). National Gallery – London. Around 1578.

With the death of Jesus began the long work of conversion to Christianity. The Christian message rapidly spread over Europe and the Mediterranean countries. The church needed devotional pictures and especially the Council of Trent in the middle of the sixteenth century stressed the educational character of art. Among the paintings and frescoes of scenes of the life of Jesus and of the lives of the saints, an important attention can be given to images of the glory of Mary and Jesus. Paintings of the Ascension of Mary and of Jesus, where these figures ascended to heaven in an aura of light and magnificence were always spectacular so that they remained long in the memory of the people. Among these pictures also have to be taken into account scenes of the Holy Trinity, picturing God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The Trinity was an attempt of the early Christians to reconcile the concept of monotheism with the tangible experience of Jesus the human together with the perception of an all-encompassing force of wisdom and knowledge that pervaded the universe.

Domenikos Theotokópoulos, called El Greco, made a painting of the Holy Trinity around 1577-1579. El Greco was born on Crete in 1540 or 1541, but he worked in Spain and died in Toledo in 1614. He is one of the artists who established the fame of Spanish pictorial arts of the late sixteenth century and especially the Spanish seventeenth century. El Greco made several such pictures like Jesus’s Passion, of the Resurrection of Christ and of the Holy Trinity. This painting was commissioned for the church of Santo Domingo El Antiguo of Toledo and it was the first picture that El Greco made when he arrived in Toledo in 1577 P1. The composition was based on an engraving by Dürer and the body of Jesus was probably drawn after the Pietŕ that Michelangelo made for Vittoria Colonna P1. El Greco was still young and this may have been one of his first great paintings, so it is understandable that he went back to famous examples.

El Greco painted the tortured body of Jesus supported by God the Father as in a Pietŕ. Jesus is shown as if he were lowered from the cross. He is lifeless and his contorted body and hands show the wounds of Golgotha. Jesus’s head hangs powerless on the shoulder of the Father, who looks sternly at Jesus’s face. There is not much pity in the white-bearded face of the patriarch God. This God ordained Jesus’s death. He brings his son back to heaven, but what has been accomplished needed to be done. The Holy Spirit hovers above God the Father in the form of a pigeon. Thus the three forms of God are present.

The whole scene is painted as a glory of the heavens. Various angels are positioned in a ‘V’ form around Jesus and the Father. This form both enhances the movement in the picture by its oblique lines and it brings the view always back to the pale body of Jesus. Small angel heads support Jesus’s feet and all figures are standing on grey clouds in the sky. Above the Holy Spirit shines a brilliant sun that sends its radiations over the scene. The illumination that pervades through the picture comes from the sun that breaks through the clouds, but the light also seems to be generated by the Holy Spirit. God the Father is depicted as a bishop of the church with a high mitre and cloaks in blue and gold. There are no ornaments in the cloaks and robes. They are not painted in all detail of the folds even though the white robe of God the Father shows folds, which are indicated by shadows of grey colour more than by line. El Greco painted in a style that was rough and direct. It is as if he had not much patience to show intricate detail. He was interested in the subject and gave a visually striking effect.

El Greco’s colours are harsh and cold and only a few colours are used in this painting, and then always with entire, broad patches in one and the same colour. El Greco did not have patience for intertwining shades of colours; when he started a surface in a certain colour he used that colour alone plus its various shades in order to create volume and depth. Then he put another colour to another surface such as in the fresco way of painting. The colours are unusual; no red but rose, some blue but also much purple and these two colours contrasted by yellow that simulates golden shines. The result was an image that could easily be read visually.

El Greco’s composition was important and conveyed the message directly; his colours supported the composition. The message of grand emotion for the Ascension of Jesus and the Trinity was thus immediately conveyed to the viewer and the viewer’s mind could be impregnated with a vision of glory. This was the kind of images of pathos that the clergy liked and could use for their proliferation and stabilisation of Christian faith. El Greco’s picture is a scene of exaltation. Religion is about the glorification and exaltation of God and this painting epitomises that concept.


El Greco made many religious pictures for pious Spain. The letters IHS were the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus IHSOYS, which stood for Yahweh. They could also be the abbreviation of ‘Iesus Hominum Salvator’, Jesus the Saviour of Mankind. The use of these letters as symbols of Christ may have originated with Saint Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444) who made a plaque in Volterra with these letters inscribed, surrounded by rays of light U11 . El Greco’s painting of the ‘Adoration of the name of Jesus’s was one of his first Spanish pictures since he arrived in Spain in 1577. The picture shows Philip II, King of Spain together with the Pope and the Doge of Venice in adoration of the trigram. The picture may commemorate the battle of Lepanto of 1571 in which a combined papal, Spanish and Venetian naval army led by Don Juan of Austria defeated the Turks, thus securing the Mediterranean for Western trade once more. The trigram contains the three letters of Jesus’s name and three monarchs joined forces to defeat the Turks, the infidels, against which so many crusades had been led already in Christ’s name.

El Greco painted the trigram in fiery flames on top of the painting. The letters also bear the cross. Angels above adore the name. On the earth are the King of Spain, the Pope and the Venetian Doge, on their knees and looking upwards at the sign. The multitudes of the round earth surround them, in awe and expectation. Some of them, in red robes, conjure the apparition with high-lifted open arms. To the right a terrifying whale opens its large mouth and shows hell with the doomed creatures inside. Thus the three main parts of the universe, heaven, earth and hell are all directed to the trigram. In the middle, people pass through a gate maybe to the Kingdom of the heavens.

El Greco’s painting resembles a primitive, primeval rough drawing. The painter was still new in Spain; his art needed fulfilment and sophistication. It shows the rapid, expressionist character of El Greco. As usual we find few bright colours. Only red is used in a few patches and in a symmetric way: two areas above in angels and two in cloaks of humans. The black dress of Philip II is central to the picture, close to the black whale and hell. In the rest of the painting the yellows and greys dominate. The fiery letters in very bright light are situated on top of the Spanish King, thus emphasising an ominous message. The piety of Philip II would slowly become obsessive and suffocate Spain.

In 1521, about fifty years before El Greco set foot on Spain, Spanish and French soldiers clashed in Navarra. The French army held a siege to the town of Pamplona. Among the defenders was a young Basque officer who had been at the court of Madrid. He had been a page of a noble at the court and he had fallen desperately in love with a very lively French girl called Germaine. He had bad luck for the girl had married Ferdinand the Catholic after this King had been widowed of Isabella of Castille. The knight, Don Inigo, became a soldier and fought at Pamplona. He was a fierce soldier, spurring his comrades to hold the town until death. But his leg was shot by a canon ball so the valiant defender fell and so did Pamplona. While he was being operated upon and slowly recovered from his wounds he read a book on the life of Jesus. His leg didn’t cure well so he remained lame. The knight could not be a soldier again so he decided to become a soldier of Christ. His love, the Queen, was unattainable so he devoted love to the Virgin Mary. Don Inigo de Loyola started to study Latin and went to universities in Spain and in Paris.

In 1539 he went to a little church in Montmartre, then still the countryside outside Paris, and vowed with six friends to become a monk, to travel to Jerusalem and to fight Jesus’s spiritual battles. Going to Jerusalem was difficult because there was a war again between Venice and the Turks, the war that would end at the battle of Lepanto. But Rome was within reach. Don Inigo wanted to found a new order. The mission of the order was to deepen religious life in the Catholic Church, to promote Catholicism and in a true Spanish zeal to fight heresy. The order was not accepted immediately. Don Inigo’s zeal was first thought to be misdirected. He was once even imprisoned by the Inquisition. But his ideas gained support. In 1540 the ‘Societas Jesus’s was founded. Their cult was to the name of Jesus and they would be called Jesuits.

Ignatius of Loyola had been a soldier. He knew the importance of exercise and of drill to soldiers. He installed a soldier’s exercise on the members of his order. The order had a military character from the beginning. Loyola was called the General of the order. Provinces were organised as well as a hierarchy of colleges, residencies and noviciates. Loyola chose only intelligent and able men, contrary to the other monk orders that were open to everyone. He wrote a treaty for the leaders of the religious drill. The spiritual exercises that every Jesuit had to pass lasted four weeks, was repeated and then recurred in the form of a week’s seminar every year of the Jesuit’s life. It took thirteen years to become a full Jesuit priest. The result was an order of very intelligent men, inspired by the energy of fighters and with the pride of an order of elite men. The highest virtue of these men was obedience to the Pope and to their General. The first general, Ignatius of Loyola, died in 1556 in Rome where he had stayed for over fifteen years. He was buried in the Baroque church of ‘Il Gesu’ in Rome and sanctified for his services to Catholicism.

The Jesuits really conquered the world. They sent missionaries to India, China, Japan, South America and Canada. Everywhere they came they were feared and everywhere they were the leaders for they were the most intelligent and the most unwavering in their faith. One of the foremost names in this spiritual conquest of the Orient was Franciscus Xaverius who went in 1549 from India to Japan. Through Franciscus, a Christian community in Japan developed. The Christian community grew until the Jesuits went too far, and started to destroy statues of local Gods. The Christians were confined to a region on the coast, then in 1638 completely banned, an edict that would only be retracted in 1873. The most wonderful successes of the Jesuits were won in Paraguay, where they instituted almost an Indian Jesuit state isolated from the other Christians. But the Jesuits became too powerful in Europe and when the order came under attack in the second half of the eighteenth century, their Paradise in Paraguay was closed. The Jesuits were driven out of the country in 1767; the Indians were once more the prey of adventurers.

The Jesuits organised schools in Europe. They opened not just seminars but also schools for all intelligent young children. Many colleges in Europe are still the property of the Jesuit Order and are organised by the Jesuits, including various universities. The order played a tremendous role in the spiritual teaching of the elite of Europe.

The end of the Jesuits came in the eighteenth century, in the age of Enlightenment. The French King Louis XV had appointed as First Minister the anticlerical Duke of Choiseul. The Duke envied the grip of the Jesuits on intellectual France. He was an able administrator who reorganised France’s army and he was sympathetic to the Philosophers of the Enlightenment. The Duke of Choiseul was strengthened in his conviction against the power of the Jesuits when the Marquis of Pombal banned them from Portugal. Choiseul directed the anger of the Parliament against the order and brought Parliament to confiscate all the possessions of the Jesuits in France in 1764. This was only the sign for all the Bourbon kings to do the same. The Jesuits were thrown out of Spain, Naples and Sicily, then Mexico, Argentine and Peru. Finally in 1773, under pressure of the Bourbon kings of France and Spain, the Pope abolished the Jesuit order.

The Papal bull was not read everywhere however, and for instance in Russia and parts of Germany the Jesuits continued their work. In 1814 the Pope reinstalled the order, but the old battle of influence also continued. The Jesuits were forbidden in Germany in 1872, readmitted in 1917. In France the work of the order was made impossible after 1901, then the Jesuits could return after World War I. In Spain the Jesuits were banned from 1932 to 1936, then reintroduced when Franco had reconquered the country. The history of the Jesuit order thus epitomises the difficult relations between worldly and religious power, especially in education of the young elite of the European countries.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
Book Next Previous

Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.