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The devil's perspective in El Greco's Alegoria De La Liga Santa, San Juan De La Cruz's Cantico Espiritual, and Cervantes's La Numancia.

"Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth..."

Philippians 2.9-10

"This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.... and behold, something greater than Jonah is here."

Luke 11.29-32

El Greco's famous portrait of Philip II, also known as the Alegoria de la Liga Santa [fig. 1], San Juan de la Cruz's lyrical masterpiece the Cantico espiritual, and Cervantes's first play, the epic tragedy La Numancia, are all presumed to have been composed within about fifty miles of each other, the first two in Toledo, the latter in Madrid, and all more or less around the year 1580. Therefore, it should not surprise us that they have many thematic and structural similarities. Most importantly, they all signal a kind of purposeful "manifest destiny" of Spain as the culmination of Christian Empire by exhibiting grand, overarching designs that express moral and apocalyptic visions of Hapsburg rule as the final arrival of Christian peace on earth after centuries of human conflict. In this sense, they may be deemed idealistic, even apologetic compositions which pull up far short of the disillusionment of the baroque period to follow. Nevertheless, we should not mistake idealism for simplicity, for they are also anxious, self-consciously critical meditations on the possibly sinful nature of Spanish Empire at the peak of its expansion. As such they are not without disorienting political implications for Philip II as well as the Spanish viewing or reading public. One way of approaching the problematic nature of these pieces is to consider the key roles played in each by certain malevolent intruders: the gaping hellmouth that threatens Philip II in El Greco's painting; the ominously diabolical Aminadab who lurks in the final stanza of San Juan's poem; and the disruptive devil that ruins the Numantian sacrificial ceremony in act two of Cervantes's play. In this essay, I will review the ways in which the Alegoria de la Liga Santa, the Cantico espiritual, and La Numancia all allude to Christian Empire, centering their respective apocalyptic visions on Philip II; then I will consider the problematic perspectives that diabolical transgressors bring to each work.

At first glance, El Greco's painting is perhaps the most straightforward here due to its overt representation of Christian Empire. It portrays a fantastical meeting among the leaders of the Catholic alliance formed by Spain, Rome, and Venice, who were victorious over Turkish forces at the great naval battle of Lepanto in 1571 (Blunt). In truth, the painting indicates the entire history of Catholic Empire: the principal kneeling figures, Philip II, the Pope, the Doge of Venice, and Don Juan of Austria, form a kind of Eucharistic communion beneath the initials IHS, representing the words In hoc signo vinces, a Latin translation of the phrase "by this sign you will conquer," which for its part alludes to the cross that the first Christian Emperor, Constantine the Great, claimed to have seen in the sky prior to his victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD. El Greco here mixes the historical allusion and political significance of Raphael and Romano's Vision of Constantine [fig. 2] with the cosmic design and theological significance of famous "Last Judgment" compositions like those by Fra Angelico, Marten de Vos, and most especially Giovanni Battista Fontana (Davies) [fig. 3]. In this way the painting sets up an organic and moral universe that revolves around Philip II as the problematically militant agent of Christian Empire. Significantly, he is the subject in the painting whose perspective does not allow him to perceive the diabolical threat behind him due to his steady focus on the black sword held by Don Juan of Austria.

Allusions to the violence of empire are arguably more difficult to perceive in San Juan's great love poem. Nevertheless, certain details lodged among the numerous metaphors for the poem's passionate metaphysical encounter can also be read as hinting at the military tensions prevalent in Andalusian Spain towards the end of the sixteenth century: "y pasare los fuertes y fronteras," "las flechas que recibes," "y no tomas el robo que robaste?" (vv.15, 39, 45). One stanza appears to call for an ironically amorous inversion of the north-south conflict between Christians and Moors that dominated Spanish history for nearly eight centuries right up to the recent Alpujarras Rebellion (1568-71), which was crushed by forces led by Don Juan de Austria: "Detente cierzo muerto, / ven, austro, que recuerdas los amores, / aspira por mi huerto / y corran sus olores, / y pacera el Amado entre las flores" (vv.81-85). Another stanza seems entirely dedicated to the symbols, colors, and ideology of empire: "Nuestro lecho florido, / de cuevas de leones enlazado, / en purpura tendido, / de paz edificado, / de mil escudos de oro coronado" (vv. 116-20).

What San Juan has done is to superimpose the idealized, metaphysical love allegory of the Song of Solomon onto the political and demographic landscape of Andalucia. In his 1581 letter to Catalina de Jesus, San Juan offers a glimpse of his tendency to view the world in terms of contrasts between up and down, north and south, and heaven and hell:

Aunque no se donde esta, la quiero escribir estos renglones, confiando se los enviara nuestra Madre, si no anda con ella; y, si es asi que no anda, consuelese conmigo, que mas desterrado estoy yo y solo por aca; que despues que me trago aquella ballena y me vomito en este extrano puerto, nunca mas mereci verla ni a los santos de por alla. Dios lo hizo bien; pues, en fin, es lima el desamparo, y para gran luz el padecer tinieblas. (Obras completas 2.391-92)

San Juan's vision of his own fate here is eerily similar to the basic structure we observe in El Greco's Alegoria de la Liga Santa. Curiously enough, with respect to the poet-saint's Jonah-like descent into the darkness of Andalucia, we can even situate Philip II somewhere up north near the light of the great Mother of the Discalced Carmelites; this is because none other than Saint Teresa herself had written to the King on San Juan's behalf, urging that he intercede and free her favorite confessor from his imprisonment by his Calced enemies at Toledo.

This political dimension of the Cantico espiritual cannot be separated from the racial dynamic of the relatively darker southern Spain. San Juan envisions this terrain as a point of military conflict but potentially also a point of harmonious contact between white northern Europeans, like the recently arrived Habsburgs, and the darker Moorish and increasingly African populations inhabiting the south. Hence, he constantly self-identifies with and seeks to give voice to the dark maiden of the Song of Solomon: "No quieras despreciarme, / que si color moreno en mi hallaste, / ya bien puedes mirarme, / despues que me miraste, / que gracia y hermosura en mi dejaste" (Cantico espiritual vv.116-20; Jaen version, vv.161-65). This has all sorts of implications for interpreting San Juan's poetic project. For example, Solomon, long regarded as the kingly lover in the Song of Solomon, is also thought to have had sexual relations with Sheba, who for her part is often associated with the darker south, particularly Ethiopia. This racialized love affair is easily transposed onto Spanish politics when we recall that sixteenth-century chroniclers associated Philip II with Solomon due to his construction of a massive new temple at El Escorial. Through his mystical poetry, San Juan appears to be imploring Philip II on behalf of the Moriscos, a population with whom he felt it was his religious duty to identify himself, trying to get the King to adopt a more peaceful, amorous approach to southern Spain. Nevertheless, we should note the ominous allusion to Aminadab in the final stanza of the Cantico espiritual: "Que nadie lo miraba, / Aminadab tampoco parecia; / y el cerco sosegaba, / y la caballeria / a vista de las aguas descendia" (vv.191-95). Whereas peace seems within reach as a siege falls away and a line of horses descends towards water, San Juan tells us again and again in his glosses of this and other poems that Aminadab is the Devil. Although the poet tells us that Aminadab does not appear, we might doubt that he is far off in such a surreal and troubled landscape. In the Book of Matthew's genealogy of Jesus (Mt. 1.1-17), the mysterious Aminadab is exactly halfway between the generations of Abraham and Solomon. San Juan seems to be composing an allegorical perspective on the peculiarly difficult relations among the three Abrahamic faiths of Spain, as if something evil were lurking in their shared past, something destined to destroy any harmony between them.

Turning to Cervantes's La Numancia the theme of war is patent and its historical allusions are similar to those of El Greco's Alegoria de la Liga Santa, but like San Juan's Cantico espiritual, the implications for Philip II depend upon a slightly more subtle allegory (cf. Stiegler). The River Duero clearly spells out the ironic parallels between the fall of the ancient Celtic city of Numantia and the future rise of Habsburg Spain. It is the play's final scene, however, that makes most clear the theological politics that Cervantes is applying to Philip II. As the Romans and in particular Scipio the Younger bow their heads in moral defeat, the young martyr Bariato, a national Christ-figure, hurls himself to his death at the base of a tower. Fame then arrives to announce the victory of Bariato's self-sacrifice over Roman might. Scipio the Younger clearly represents Philip II, as per Garcilaso's famous equation between Scipio the Elder and Charles V in the Second Eclogue. Moreover, an early scene in La Numancia involves a suspiciously named Milvio, who tells us that another young Numantian had died of "mal gobierno" (v.409) a pun meaning 'bad diet' but also 'bad government.' Cervantes is here conducting a national Eucharist on par with El Greco's Alegoria de la Liga Santa, with the added parallel of an allusion to Constantine's victory at the Milvian Bridge.

But thinking of La Numancia as a whole, what Cervantes has done is to weave together a series of sacrificial rituals, each more or less approximating but somehow falling short of the ideal Christian Eucharist that remains in the play's historical future. The second act, for example, is constructed around two major Numantian rituals, relatively more religious than the militant Roman rituals of the first act, but still fragmented from a Christian perspective. Numantian leaders as well as anonymous citizens first turn to official priests in search of a sacrificial solution to their predicament: "primero encargo que se haga / a Jupiter solene sacrificio, / de quien podremos esperar la paga / harto mayor que nuestro beneficio" (vv.633-36); "yo con todo el pueblo me prefiero / hacer de lo que Jupiter mas gusta, / que son los sacrificios y oblaciones" (vv.669-71). Cervantes then gives Levitican stage directions regarding their attempt to sacrifice a ram: "... salen dos numantinos vestidos como sacerdotes antiguos, y han de traer [asido] de los cuernos en medio un carnero grande, coronado de oliva y otro con un jarro de agua, y otros dos con dos jarros de vino, y otro con otra fuente de plata con un poco de incienso, y otros con fuego y lena..." (89). As is the case with an oath given previously by the entire Roman army, the presence here of the entire Numantian caste gives the scene a universal scope. Once again, however, the public is made complicit in an essentially primitive, because vengeful and egocentric, celebration. The head priest explains the goals of the sacrificial act:

   Y ansi como te bano y ensangriento este cuchillo en esta sangre
   pura con alma limpia y limpio pensamiento, ansi la tierra de
   Numancia dura se bane con la sangre de romanos y aun los sirva
   tambien de sepoltura. (vv. 879-84)

At least now there is a substitute, a literal scapegoat for the enemy against whom violence is urged (cf. Girard). Underscoring this advance, but also pointing up the elusiveness of the final step in the metahistorical dissolution of the sacrificial instinct, Cervantes now freezes the action and has a demon rise up out of a trap door on the stage in order to rob the ram from the Numantian priests, who remain completely unaware of this diabolical interference: "Sale por el gueco del tablado un demonio hasta el medio cuerpo, y ha de arrebatar el carnero, y volverse a disparar el fuego, y todos los sacrificios" (Marrast ed. 71). This peculiar, almost cinematic choreography foregrounds the lingering blindness of the pagan worldview, which has yet to hit upon the Christian substitution of the sinful self for the hated enemy. Hence, the confused, yet suggestive reaction of the second priest to a logic that he cannot comprehend: "Mas ?quien me ha arrebatado de las manos / la victima? ?Que es esto, dioses santos? / ?Que prodigios son estos tan insanos?" (vv.885-87).

Critics have indicated the irony and subversive potential of the ideological and structural tension between Cervantes's La Numancia (c.1580) and the major public images associated with Spanish Imperialism, including the symbols of the auto de fe deployed by the Spanish Inquisition in its efforts to eradicate heresy (King; Kahn; Stroud; and Graf). I would argue that the disruptive figure of the devil in the play's second act is a fundamental aspect of this tension. To the degree that La Numancia is an artistic representation of a kind of national auto de fe, but also an anxious critique of the apotheosis of Spanish Imperialism in the wake of the Alpujarras Rebellion (1568-71), the Battle of Lepanto (1571), and the annexation of Portugal (1580), then Cervantes's devil plays a fundamentally ambivalent role: on the one hand, subversive with respect to religious orthodoxy and militant nationalism; on the other hand, suggestive of humanism's efforts to reform and moderate the same.


The diabolical entities in El Greco's Alegoria de la Liga Santa, San Juan's Cantico espiritual, and Cervantes's La Numancia are similar in that they are all allegorical and all about perspective, in particular moral perspective. At the other end of the moral spectrum, San Juan's radical perspective on the Crucifixion comes immediately to mind [fig. 4]. My point is that the diabolical intrusions in these three compositions are structural and teleological in nature, signaling for us that the violent past is a temporal version of the underworld. Like the giant hellmouth in El Greco's painting, the devil in Cervantes's play comes up from below and disrupts a sacrificial ceremony, all the while remaining invisible to its principal celebrants. It suggests a ceremony that is misconceived and misdirected and it damns the participants to failure and ignorance regarding the meaning of a truer sacrifice that remains as yet to be performed in the Christian future. Similarly, the lingering devil in San Juan's Cantico espiritual is a threat because it has the potential to actualize the baser instincts of the self and return a tenuous world of relative calm and peace to the chaos and bloodshed that preceded it. In these senses, we should characterize all three of these diabolical intrusions as humanist and neoplatonic. Indeed, all three compositions echo the moral significance of the shifting perspective involved in the final scene from Dante's Inferno, in which Virgil, with Dante on his back, first descends out of Hell and then turns himself upside down and ascends into Purgatory. The locus theologicus for this basic disorienting trope of Dante--and by extension those of El Greco, San Juan, and Cervantes--is most likely Irenaeus's Against Heresies (3.20), an important patristic text in which the trajectory of Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale as punishment for his refusal to do God's will and then vomited forth again after he repented, is interpreted in Christian terms as analogous to the purgative sufferings of the human soul. Because the human soul is corruptible, it must necessarily undergo a Jonah-like descent in order to atone for its sins and emerge purified prior to its eventual union with God. This idea, of course, is inherent in the Bible itself (see this essay's epigraphs).

In addition to being humanist and neoplatonic, however, to the degree that they each somehow situate Philip II at a precarious point in their cosmic moral trajectories, they are also political works. This may very well be a matter of producing aesthetic versions of a kind of internal, loyal critique of potentially false sainthood, as per the role of the "advocatus diaboli" in the Catholic process of canonization. Nevertheless, in my opinion they are sufficiently skeptical of Philip Il's moral status so as to anticipate, to varying the degrees, the role played by the diabolical in more modern political discourse. In my view, each in its own way anticipates a certain 1799 political cartoon of Napoleon leading his troops into a giant hellmouth [fig. 5].


Blunt, Anthony. "El Greco's 'Dream of Philip II': An Allegory of the Holy League." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 3 (1939-40): 58-69.

Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de. El cerco de Numancia. Ed. Robert Marrast. Madrid, Catedra, 1984.

--. La destruccion de Numancia. Ed. Alfredo Hermenegildo. Madrid: Castalia, 1994.

Dante Alighieri. Inferno. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam, 1980. Davies, David. El Greco. London: National Gallery, 2003.

Girard, Rene. The Scapegoat. Trad. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.

Graf, E. C. "Valladolid dellenda est: La politica teologica de La Numancia." Theatralia: Revista de Poetica del Teatro 5 (2003): 273-82.

Irenaeus. Against Heresies.

Kahn, Aaron M. The Ambivalence of Imperial Discourse: Cervantes's La Numancia within the "Lost Generation" of Spanish Drama (1570-90). Oxford: Peter Lang, 2008.

King, Willard F. "Cervantes' Numancia and Imperial Spain." MLN 94.2 (1979): 200-21.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Ed. Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

San Juan de la Cruz. Obra completa. 2 Vols. Ed. Luce Lopez-Baralt. Madrid: Alianza, 1991.

Stiegler, Bryan M. "The Coming of the New Jerusalem: Apocalyptic Vision in Cervantes' La Numancia." Neophilologus 80 (1996): 569-81.

Stroud, Matthew D. "La Numancia como auto secular." Cervantes, su obra y su mundo: Actas del I Congreso Internacional sobre Cervantes. Ed. Manuel Criado de Val. Madrid: EDI-6, 1981. 303-07.

E. C. Graf

Wesleyan University
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Author:Graf, E.C.
Publication:Romance Notes
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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