One of the great benefits conferred by Modernism on our appreciation of traditional painting is that there is little inclination any longer to ascribe optical abnormalities to artists whose representations of the human form depart from accepted norms. No one, for example, thinks for a moment that the attenuated figures of Giacometti are the result of deficits in the sculptor’s eyesight, having learned in Modern Art 101 that his elongated figures symbolize the existentialist despair that inflected European consciousness at the time of World War II. The danger of Modernism is that we often look at what would have been perceived as distortions in traditional art simply as cases where the artists were ahead of their time–if we notice them at all. What appeared, before Modernism, as abnormal elongations in the paintings of El Greco were perceived after Modernism as the kind of expressive gestures viewers had learned to take in stride. El Greco, whose extravagant distortions made him seem beyond the pale before Modernism, appeared to Modernists as one of their own, and modern artists often found in him what they were seeking to achieve in their own art.

We no longer think El Greco must have been astigmatic, any more than that the early Modernists such as Matisse and Derain had to have been mad to paint as they did, unless they were having a joke at everyone’s expense. But Modernism has perhaps overcompensated by suggesting that what our grandparents would have seen as abnormalities were merely, if we are formalists, determined by the exigencies of design, or else just had to do with the artist expressing the way he felt. This approach may blind us to meanings in the work to which the artist’s contemporaries responded, and that shaped the works’ reception in its own time. The chief critical challenge in addressing El Greco is to find a way of addressing him on his own terms.

Years ago I learned an argument from the cagey philosopher Nelson Goodman called the El Greco Paradox, which could perhaps be generalized to deflect any effort at explaining away deviations from presumed norms as the result of ophthalmic disorder. Goodman argued that if El Greco painted normally proportioned figures as elongated because he saw them that way, then we would see his painted figures as normally proportioned–and there will thus be no evidence in his paintings of abnormal vision. Some alternative account must accordingly be given for the elongations that are features of his mature style. I’m not sure the “paradox” was original with Goodman, but empirical psychology and art history tend to corroborate this conclusion. In a recent experiment (published in the journal Leonardo, under the headline “Was El Greco Astigmatic?”) the psychologist Stuart Anstis transformed normally sighted observers into “artificial El Grecos” by having them look through a modified cylindrical telescope that stretched their images horizontally by 30 percent. When, with the other eye covered, his subjects tried to draw a freehand square from memory, they “drew a tall, thin rectangle elongated vertically by 35 percent.” Instructed to copy actual squares, both original and copy looked to them like squat, wide rectangles. When one subject wore the El Greco telescope over one eye for two days with the other eye covered, her first drawn squares were 50 percent too tall, but she rapidly adjusted to optical distortion, and after two days she drew as if she had normal vision. So, Anstis concludes, might El Greco have adjusted, even if he was born astigmatic.

There is, in fact, no evidence of elongation in El Greco’s early work at all, and while this is hardly the main thing to look for in the magnificent exhibition of his work on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art until January 11, the signature elongations begin to appear only when the artist was well along in his career and in his 40s. El Greco began as an icon painter in Crete, which at the time was under Venetian domination; and among the great surprises of the show are two recently identified paintings by him, one of the Dormition of the Virgin, the other of Saint Luke painting the Virgin and Child, both from the 1560s, and executed in Post-Byzantine style, under which optical abnormalities could scarcely be perceived. The Madonna and Child on St. Luke’s easel has the look of an immemorial Greek Orthodox icon; the spatial placement of the easel shows that perspective was a distant rumor for the artist; draperies in both paintings are schematic and conventional. There would have been no way of identifying these works as his on stylistic grounds, and certainly no basis in them for predicting the course of El Greco’s artistic odyssey. When these paintings were executed, the Renaissance in Italy had peaked, and its towering figures–Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo–had been dead for several decades. Italian art had entered its Mannerist phase, which was to last until nearly the end of the century, and the beginning of the Baroque. Relative to the extreme sophistication of what we may think of as mainland art, El Greco was a pretty backward artist, but with ambitions fueled by the presence in Crete of Venetian tastes and values. He traveled to Venice sometime after the putative date of the Cretan icons, and not long after that traveled to Rome, probably stopping in such towns as Parma and Verona en route, where Mannerism was in full flower.

I have always wondered why El Greco is not considered a Mannerist painter, for he took certain of the defining attributes of that movement to the point of extremity. Mannerism was a reaction against idealized naturalism, the glory of the High Renaissance. It created a style of elegant artificiality, embodied in the strange elongations we find, for example, in the figures of Parmigianino and Rosso Fiorentino. Heads were disproportionately small, faces stylized, pictorial space reinvented, and an overall imperative of refined exaggeration governed artistic invention. It was as if there was an agenda of deconstruction, in which the discoveries of the Renaissance were reconfigured to create pictorial fantasies rather than painstaking transcriptions of visual reality.

To get some sense of what could have caused so monumental a transformation in painting, we have to look beyond the frame of art history. Clearly, the cause of this astonishing rebellion in figuration was the trauma Catholicism had suffered in the wake of the Reformation. The reaction took the form, in art, of spiritualizing the depiction of human flesh. The values aimed at in depicting the human body entailed replacing anatomical correctness with spiritual truth. Imagine painting the narrative episodes of the Christian epic–the Annunciation, the Adoration, the Last Supper, the Resurrection, the Last Judgment–using figures whose proportions were met at best by Vogue models, instead of the solid peasant types who had given Renaissance art its reassuring familiarity. The story no longer seemed as if it had taken place in a world just like ours, but rather in a visionary atmosphere resembling an image of our world seen in a convex mirror. Mannerism was a first stage in the Counter-Reformation, which became full-blooded in the Baroque at the end of the century, when Rome became the center of artistic patronage, and all the previous centers were transformed into cultural provinces.

El Greco turned himself into a Mannerist in the course of his Italian sojourn. One can study this transitional period in his evolution in the Metropolitan’s own Christ Healing the Blind, of about 1565. So little is it in the distinctive style El Greco was to achieve, that it was attributed to Tintoretto and, as late as 1958, to Veronese. Such works demonstrate that whatever refractive errors may have troubled him, nothing in the painting would have encouraged an inference of astigmatism. But the painting is full of early Mannerist eccentricities. It is almost choreographed, with two groups of figures on either side of the stage. A “backdrop” shows an immense piazza in deep spatial recession, lined by arcaded buildings in flawless perspective. One group surrounds a quite normally proportioned Jesus, touching the eyes of a kneeling blind man. The other group shows figures responding to the miracle with the extreme melodramatic gestures that were to become the body language of the Baroque–the pictorial sign of personages witnessing miraculous events. One man points to Jesus’ intervention as if to say, Behold!–while another, still doubting Jesus’ claim to divine powers, holds his hands out as if to repel the sight. There is an anomalous figure, tentatively identified as a second blind man just restored to sight, shown from behind pointing upward. How, after all, does one represent someone who sees for the first time? But he may not be a cured blind man at all–Mannerist art often included figures that added to the dramatic excitement without being part of the narrative. In a second version, a witness looks upward at what the figure is pointing to, as if something astonishing were taking place offstage.

El Greco did not become “El Greco” until he moved to Spain, sometime before October 1576, nor did he use that mongrel nickname–a Spanish prefix and the Italian word for “Greek”–as his signature. He always signed his paintings with his Greek name, Domenikos Theotokopoulos, using Greek characters. But he also became El Greco, in the sense that he became an artist whose affinities to Mannerism are merely external, since his elongations came to express meanings internal to a vision that he could at that date have acquired only in Spain. They were no longer, to use the term in its slightly pejorative sense, mannerisms. In my view, the Italian period was one of learning how to paint in the advanced style of the era. He mastered perspective, anatomy, chiaroscuro and a kind of pictorial chic. But nothing especially set him apart from the pack, and though he had backers and patrons, and received portrait commissions in Rome, he was not a huge success there. Paintings such as The Purification of the Temple, from the same period as Christ Healing the Blind, show the sort of ambition that drove him, but they were never underwritten by important commissions. The Purification shows an irascible Jesus, driving not just money-lenders but courtesans and other vessels of impurity out of holy precincts with a knotted flogger. (There is even a traif still life in the foreground, consisting of oysters and rabbits.) I was interested to read that one of El Greco’s patrons told him of the success Sofonisba Anguissola–the female prodigy from Cremona–had had in Spain as tutor to the queen. In any case, his work was not a hit in Madrid, but he was commissioned to execute an altarpiece in the Cathedral of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo, where he was to spend the remainder of his life, becoming, as they say in New Age psychology, who he was. It was through finding an artistic product that satisfied the spiritual needs of this community that this came about.

I say “needs” rather than “tastes,” for it was not a simple matter of aesthetic preferences that gave him an advantage in Toledo. Toledo was at the center of the Counter-Reformation in Spain, and my sense is that El Greco invented a visual language that suited this spirit in a way that no one else had imagined. Mannerism was wedded to a kind of mysticism in his work, and rather than creating simply an alternative naturalism, he created a vision of a supernatural universe in which the Christian narrative was presented as visually momentous. Consider the extraordinary The Crucifixion With Two Donors of 1580. The donors–a priest with his palms pressed together and a nobleman with his right hand pressed to his heart–are cropped at the waist by the lower edge of the canvas. The cross, bearing Christ crucified, rises, or rather soars upward between them, so their eyes are at the same level as Christ’s feet. Christ is elongated and slender, and depicted almost in the pose of a dancer, his perfect body, barely wounded, made luminous by a light from above. It is as though the agony that Christ should be feeling has been transferred to the world through the drama of heavy, backlit clouds: There seems no boundary between earth and sky, which express the kind of crashing upheaval of a storm at sea. The donors’ faces express wonderment and awe.

I have borrowed these last two terms from Kant, who uses them to describe the experience of the sublime. Sublimity was not to figure in the vocabulary of aesthetics or art criticism until the latter part of the eighteenth century, but whether or not there was a word for it in El Greco’s Spain, it was what the spiritual appetite of the artist’s patrons demanded. Ecstasy is the condition of being moved by powers too great for the mind to contain, and Christ’s body in El Greco’s Crucifixion expresses the order of ecstasy to which Counter-Reformation Catholicism aspired in Toledo. It is ecstasy that Saint Teresa of Ávila–El Greco’s contemporary–sought in her devotions and described in her writing. One might say that El Greco invented the sublime in advance of the concept, and his elongations were among his means. They serve, or rather extend, the standards of sense to activate the faculty of mind in his viewers that his saints express in their bodies.

This, it seems to me, is the way to think about the masterpieces you will see in this great exhibition–about The Opening of the Fifth Seal, about the astonishing Laocoön, about The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception and certainly about the ecstatic landscape of Toledo itself. Toledo, indeed, figures in both these latter paintings, as if to imply that the city is internally related to the immense spiritual convulsions that take place in the sky above it or, in the case of Laocoön, writhing with his sons in the grip of two serpents on the slopes outside its walls. Once one sees the logic in El Greco’s representations relative to the anticipated mood of his primary viewers, everything else falls into place: palette, pigment, brushwork, proportion, the dimensions of his canvas, the size of the eyes, the direction of gaze, the twist of the body, the ferocity of gesture.

The sublime was something that before El Greco belonged to poetry and to music in their highest expressions, and ecstasy to dance and tragic performances. It was his achievement to bring it into the visual arts. But his genius was made possible by the histories of painting and of religion flowing into each other. When, by the time of Kant, the sublime emerged as a conscious aesthetic goal, everything had become finally too secular for it to get off the ground as an artistic reality. It was only with Abstract Expressionism that, in Barnett Newman’s phrase, the sublime was “now” once more. It was a clever thought of the exhibition’s organizers to install some studies after El Greco by Jackson Pollock at the entrance to their exhibition. Pollock copied them from plates in art books, but he knew they held something that New York Modernism thirsted for–an abstraction beyond geometry, transcending the bounds of taste.