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El Greco



Domenicos Theotokopoulos, known as El Greco (1541-1614), moved to Venice from Greece in about 1567. He worked with Titian and admired the work of Tintoretto, before visiting Rome in about 1570. He then moved to Madrid to work on the palace-monastery of San Lorenzo at El Escorial. He lived in Spain for the rest of his life. The luminosity and inherent spiritualism in his work, the innovative layout in some of his paintings, and the sumptuous use of colour make El Greco one of the great masters of the passage between High Renaissance and Baroque.


born 1541, Candia [Iraklion], Crete
died April 7, 1614, Toledo, Spain

byname of Domenikos Theotokópoulos master of Spanish painting, whose highly individual dramatic and expressionistic style (see ) met with the puzzlement of his contemporaries but gained newfound appreciation in the 20th century. He also worked as a sculptor and as an architect.

Early life and works

El Greco never forgot that he was of Greek descent and usually signed his paintings in Greek letters with his full name, Domenikos Theotokópoulos. He is, nevertheless, generally known as El Greco (“the Greek”), a name he acquired when he lived in Italy, where the custom of identifying a man by designating country or city of origin was a common practice. The curious form of the article (El), however, may be the Venetian dialect or more likely from theSpanish.

Because Crete, his homeland, was then a Venetian possession and he was a Venetian citizen, he decided to go to Venice to study. The exact year in which this took place is not known; but speculation has placed the date anywhere from 1560, when he was 19, to 1566. In Venice he entered the studio of Titian, who was the greatest painter of the day. Knowledge of El Greco's years in Italy is limited. A letter of Nov. 16, 1570, written by Giulio Clovio, an illuminator in the service of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, requested lodging in the Palazzo Farnese for “a young man from Candia, a pupil of Titian.” On July 8, 1572, “the Greek painter” is mentioned in a letter sent from Rome by a Farnese official to the same cardinal. Shortly thereafter, on Sept. 18, 1572, “Dominico Greco” paid his dues to the guild of St. Luke in Rome. How long the young artist remained in Rome is unknown, because he may have returned to Venice, c. 1575–76, before he left for Spain.

The certain works painted by El Greco in Italy are completely in the Venetian Renaissance style of the 16th century. They show no effect of his Byzantine heritage except possibly in the faces of old men—for example, in the “Christ Healing the Blind.” The placing of figures in deep space and the emphasis on an architectural setting in High Renaissance style are particularly significant in his early pictures, such as “Christ Cleansing the Temple.” The first evidence of El Greco's extraordinary gifts as a portraitist appears in Italy in a portrait of Giulio Clovio and Vincentio Anastagi.

Middle years

El Greco first appeared in Spain in the spring of 1577, initially at Madrid, later in Toledo. One of his main reasons for seeking a new career in Spain must have been knowledge of Philip II's great project, the building of the monastery of San Lorenzo at El Escorial, some 26 miles (42 km) northwest of Madrid. Moreover, the Greek must have met important Spanish churchmen in Rome through Fulvio Orsini, a humanist and librarian of the Palazzo Farnese. It is known that at least one Spanish ecclesiastic who spent some time in Rome at this period—Luis de Castilla—became El Greco's intimate friend and was eventually named one of the two executors of his last testament. Luis' brother, Diego de Castilla, gave El Greco his first commission in Spain, which possibly had been promised before the artist left Italy.

In 1578 Jorge Manuel, the painter's only son, was born at Toledo, the offspring of Dona Jeronima de Las Cuevas. She appears to have outlived El Greco, and, although he acknowledged both her and his son, he never married her. That fact has puzzled all writers, because he mentioned her in various documents, including his last testament. It may be that El Greco had married unhappily in his youth in Crete or Italy and therefore could not legalize another attachment.

For the rest of his life El Greco continued to live in Toledo, busily engaged on commissions for the churches and monasteries there and in the province. He became a close friend of the leading humanists, scholars, and churchmen. Antonio de Covarrubias, a classical scholar and son of the architect Alonso de Covarrubias, was a friend whose portrait he painted. Fray Hortensio Paravicino, the head of the Trinitarian order in Spain and a favourite preacher of Philip II of Spain, dedicated four sonnets to El Greco, one of them recording his own portrait by the artist. Luis de Gongora y Argote, one of the major literary figures of the late 16th century, composed a sonnet to the tomb of the painter. Another writer, Don Pedro de Salazar de Mendoza, figured among the most intimate circle of El Greco's entourage.

The inventories compiled after his death confirm the fact that he was a man of extraordinary culture—a true Renaissance humanist. His library, which gives some idea of the breadth and range of his interests, included works of the major Greek authors in Greek, numerous books in Latin, and others in Italian and in Spanish: Plutarch's Lives, Petrarch's poetry, Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, the Bible in Greek, the proceedings of the Council of Trent, and architectural treatises by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, Giacomo da Vignola, Leon Battista Alberti, Andrea Palladio, and Sebastiano Serlio. El Greco himself prepared an edition of Vitruvius, accompanied by drawings, but the manuscript is lost.

In 1585 and thereafter El Greco lived in the large, late-medieval palace of the Marques de Villena. Although it is near the site of the now-destroyed Villena Palace, the museum in Toledo called the Casa y Museo del Greco (“Home and Museum of El Greco”) was never his residence. It can be assumed that he needed space for his atelier more than for luxurious living. In 1605 the palace was listed by the historian Francisco de Pisa as one of the handsomest in the city; it was not a miserable ruined structure, as some romantic writers have presumed. El Greco surely lived in considerable comfort, even though he did not leave a large estate at his death.

El Greco's first commission in Spain was for the high altar and the two lateral altars in the conventual church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo at Toledo (1577–79). Never before had the artist had a commission of such importance and scope. Even the architectural design of the altar frames, reminiscent of the style of the Venetian architect Palladio, was prepared by El Greco. The painting for the high altar, “Assumption of the Virgin,” also marked a new period in the artist's life, revealing the full extent of his genius. The figures are brought close into the foreground, and in the Apostles a new brilliance of colour is achieved. The technique remains Venetian in the laying on of the paint and in the liberal use of white highlights; yet the intensity of the colours and the manipulation of contrasts, verging on dissonance, is distinctly El Greco. For the first time the importance of his assimilation of the art of Michelangelo comes to the fore, particularly in the painting of the “Trinity,” in the upper part of the high altar (now in the Prado Museum, Madrid), where the powerful sculpturesque body of the nude Christ leaves no doubt of the ultimate source of inspiration. In the lateral altar painting of the “Resurrection,” the poses of the standing soldiers and the contrapposto (a position in which the upper and lower parts of the body are contrasted indirection) of those asleep are also clearly Michelangelesque in inspiration.

At the same time, El Greco created another masterpiece of extraordinary originality—the “Espolio” (“Disrobing of Christ”). In designing the composition vertically and compactly in the foreground he seems to have been motivated by the desire to show the oppression of Christ by his cruel tormentors. He chose a method of space elimination that is common to middle and late 16th-century Italian painters known as Mannerists, and at the same time he probably recalled late Byzantine paintingsin which the superposition of heads row upon row is employed to suggest a crowd. The original altar of gilded wood that El Greco designed for the painting has been destroyed, but his small sculptured group of the “Miracle of St. Ildefonso” still survives on the lower centre of the frame.

El Greco's tendency to elongate the human figure becomes more notable at this time—for example, in the handsome and unrestored “St. Sebastian.” The same extreme elongation of body is also present in Michelangelo's work, in the painting of the Venetians Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese, and in the art of the leading Mannerist painters. The increased slenderness of Christ's long body against the dramatic clouds in “Crucifixion with Donors” foreshadows the artist's late style.

El Greco's connection with the court of Philip II was brief and unsuccessful, consisting first of the “Allegory of the Holy League” (“Dream of Philip II”; 1578–79) and second of the “Martyrdom of St. Maurice” (1580–82). The latter painting did not meet with the approval of the king, who promptly ordered another work of the same subject to replace it. Thus ended the great artist's connection with the Spanish court. The king may have been troubled by the almost shocking brilliance of the yellows as contrasted to the ultramarine in the costumes of the main group of the painting, which includes St. Maurice in the centre. On the other hand, to the modern eye El Greco's daring use of colour is particularly appealing. The brushwork remains Venetian in the way that the colour suggests form and in the free illusionistic and atmospheric creation of space.

The “Burial of the Count de Orgaz” (1586–88; Santo Tome, Toledo is universally regarded as El Greco's masterpiece. The supernatural vision of Gloria (“Heaven”) above and the impressive array of portraits represent all aspects of this extraordinary genius's art. El Greco clearly distinguished between heaven and earth: above, heaven is evoked by swirling icy clouds, semiabstract in their shape, and the saints are tall and phantomlike; below, all is normal in the scale and proportions of the figures. According to the legend, Saints Augustine and Stephen appeared miraculously to lay the Count de Orgaz in his tomb as a reward for his generosity to their church. In golden and red vestments they bend reverently over the body of the count, who is clad in magnificent armour that reflects the yellow and reds of the other figures. The young boy at the left is El Greco's son, Jorge Manuel; on a handkerchief in his pocket is inscribed the artist's signature and the date 1578, the year of the boy's birth. The men in contemporary 16th-century dress who attend the funeral are unmistakably prominent members of Toledan society. El Greco's Mannerist method of composition is nowhere more clearly expressed than here, where all of the action takes place in the frontal plane.

Later life and works

From 1590 until his death El Greco's painterly output was prodigious. His pictures for the churches and convents of the Toledan region include the “Holy Family with the Magdalen” and the “Holy Family with St. Anne.” He repeated several times the “Agony in the Garden,” in which a supernatural world is evoked through strange shapes and brilliant, cold, clashing colours. The devotional theme of “Christ Carrying the Cross” is known in 11 originals by El Greco and many copies. El Greco depicted most of the major saints, often repeating the same composition: St. Dominic, Mary Magdalen, St. Jerome as cardinal, St. Jerome in penitence, and St. Peter in tears. St. Francis of Assisi, however, was by far the saint most favoured by the artist; about 25 originals representing St. Francis survive and, in addition, more than 100 pieces by followers. The most popular of several types was “St. Francis and Brother Leo Meditating on Death.”

Two major series (“Apostolados”) survive representing Christ and the Twelve Apostles in 13 canvases: one in the sacristy of Toledo Cathedral (1605–10) and another, unfinished set (1612–14) in the El Greco House and Museumat Toledo. The frontal pose of the Christ blessing in this series suggests a medieval Byzantine figure, although the colour and brushwork are El Greco's personal handling of Venetian technique. In these works the devotional intensity of mood reflects the religious spirit of Roman Catholic Spain in the period of the Counter-Reformation. Although Greek by descent and Italian by artistic preparation, the artist becameso immersed in the religious environment of Spain that he became the most vital visual representative of Spanish mysticism. Yet, because of the combination of these three cultures, he developed into an artist so individual that he belongs to no conventional school but is a lonely genius of unprecedented emotional power and imagination.

Several major commissions came El Greco's way in the last 15 years of his life: three altars for the Chapel of San Jose, Toledo (1597–99); three paintings (1596–1600) for the Colegio de Dona Maria de Aragon, an Augustinian monasteryin Madrid; and the high altar, four lateral altars, and the painting “St. Ildefonso” for the Hospital de la Caridad at Illescas (1603–05).

Extreme distortion of body characterizes El Greco's last works—for example, the “Adoration of the Shepherds” (Prado Museum, Madrid), painted in 1612–14 for his own burial chapel. The brilliant, dissonant colours and the strange shapes and poses create a sense of wonder and ecstasy, as the shepherd and angels celebrate the miracle of the newly born child. In the unfinished “Vision of St. John,” El Greco's imagination led him to disregard the laws of nature even more. The gigantic swaying figure of St. John the Evangelist, in abstractly painted icy-blue garments, reveals the souls of the martyrs who cry out for deliverance. In like manner, the figure of the Madonna in the “Immaculate Conception” (1607–14; Santa Cruz Museum, Toledo), originally in the Church of San Vicente, floats heavenward in a paroxysm of ecstasy supported by long, distorted angels. The fantastic view of Toledo below, abstractly rendered, is dazzling in its ghostly moonlit brilliance, and the clusters of roses and lilies, symbols of the Virgin's purity, are unalloyed in their sheer beauty.

In his three surviving landscapes, El Greco demonstrated his characteristic tendency to dramatize rather than to describe. The “View of Toledo” (c. 1595; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) renders a city stormy, sinister, and impassioned with the same dark, foreboding clouds that appear in the background of his earlier “Crucifixion with Donors.” Painting in his studio, he rearranged the buildings depicted in the picture to suit his compositional purpose. “View and Plan of Toledo” (1610–14; Greco House and Museum, Toledo) is almost like a vision, all of the buildings painted glistening white. An inscription by the artist on the canvas explains quite fancifully that he had placed the Hospital of San Juan Bautista on a cloud in the foreground so that it could better be seen and that the map in the picture shows the streets of the city. At the left, a river god represents the Tagus, which flows around Toledo, a city built on rocky heights. Although El Greco had lived in Italy and in Rome itself, he rarely used such classical Roman motives.

The one picture by El Greco that has a mythological subject, so dear to most Renaissance artists, is the “Laocoon” (1610–14; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). For ancient Troy he substituted a view of Toledo, similar to the one just discussed, and he displayed little regard for classical tradition in painting the highly expressive but great, sprawling body of the priest.

Although El Greco was primarily a painter of religious subjects, his portraits, though less numerous, are equally high in quality. Two of his finest late works are the portraits of “Fray Felix Hortensio Paravicino” (1609; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and “Cardinal Don Fernando Niño de Guevara” (c. 1600; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Both are seated, as was customary after the time of Raphael in portraits presenting important ecclesiastics. Paravicino, a Trinitarian monk and a famous orator and poet, is depicted as a sensitive, intelligent man. The pose is essentially frontal, and the white habit and black cloak provide highly effective pictorial contrasts. Cardinal Niño de Guevara, in crimson robes, is almost electrical in his inherent energy, a man accustomed to command. El Greco's portrait of “Jeronimo de Cevallos” (1605–10; Prado, Madrid), on the other hand, is most sympathetic. The work is half-length, painted thinly and limited to black and white. The huge ruff collar, then in fashion, enframes the kindly face. By such simple means, the artist created a memorable characterization that places him in the highest rank as a portraitist, along with Titian and Rembrandt.

No followers of any consequence remained in Toledo after El Greco's death in 1614. Only his son and a few unknown painters produced weak copies of the master's work. His art was so personally and so highly individual that it could not survive his passing. Moreover, the new Baroque style of Caravaggio and of the Carracci soon supplanted the last surviving traits of 16th-century Mannerism.

Harold E. Wethey

Encyclopaedia Britannica



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El Greco



El Greco: The Burial of Count Orgaz, 1586

Two saints bury the munificent donor

Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen


The Burial of the Count of Orgaz
Oil on canvas, 480 x 360 cm
Santo Tome, Toledo


The canvas, 4.8 metres high and 3.6 metres wide, covers the entire wall of a chapel, reaching from the arch of the ceiling almost to the ground. The figures are life-sized, painted in 1586 for the Santo Tome church in Toledo by the Cretan artist Domenikos Theotokopulos, known in Spain as El Greco, the Greek.
El Greco's painting shows a miracle, said to have occurred in the Santo Tome church at the burial of Don Gonzalo Ruiz in 1312. According to legend, St. Stephan and St. Augustine appeared and laid the mortal remains of Gonzalo Ruiz in the grave.
Ruiz, erstwhile Chancellor of Castile and governor of Orgaz, was a man of great wealth and influence, whose beni-ficence had been especially apparent towards institutions of the church. Through his good offices, the Augustiman Order acquired a developable site within the Toledo town walls. He gave financial support to the construction of a monastery, too, and to the building of the church of Santo Tome. He even made provision that the town of Orgaz should, after his death, make an annual donation to both church and monastery of two lambs, sixteen chickens, two skins of wine, two loads of firewoood and 800 coins. According to the testimony of the saints who attended his funeral, their presence there conferred high distinction upon one who had "served his God and saints". On vanishing, they are said to have left a divine fragrance on the air.
El Greco made no attempt to clothe his figures in medieval dress. Social or political change was little understood at the time, and attention to detail of this kind would, in any case, have conflicted with his patron's wishes: the painting was not intended to recall an historical event, but to encourage contemporary spectators to follow the worthy example it honoured.
Emphasis on the contemporary relevance of the subject probably contributed to the artist's realistic rendering of many details in the lower, more worldly half of the painting: ruffs, lace cuffs, the transparent supplice. Furthermore, the Toledans would have recognized, among the gentlemen in black, several of their most well-known citizens.
El Greco gives to the two returned saints the appearance of ordinary persons (showing them without the nimbus which typically invested such figures). He portrays Augustine, the great church father, as a venerable greybeard in a bishop's mitre, while Stephan, reputed to be the first Christian martyr, appears as a young man. A further painting is inset in his mantle: the lapidation of St. Stephan. Stephan was the patron saint of the monastery to which Gonzalo Ruiz had given his support. The robe of the priest standing at the right edge of the painting carries a series of emblems referring to St. Thomas, patron saint of the church and also of architects, whose attribute was usually a builder's square.
It seems the artist chose the theme of the miracle in order to deliver a lesson in ha-giology. This may explain why, confronted with such an extraordinary event, the figures maintain their composure: not one is shown throwing up his hands in fright, or sinking in a state of shock to his knees. On the contrary, the monks on the left are engaged in discussion, while others calmly point to the event, as if illustrating a tenet of doctrine.
Indeed, to 16th-century Toledans that was exactly what the painting meant. The legend was part of general religious knowledge, related and reinterpreted each year in a service held on St. Stephan's day at the church of Santo Tome. The artist's vision conflated past and present, simultaneously showing the miracle and its incorporation into ecclesiastical doctrine.
El Greco's Heaven comes in muted tones; only the Virgin Mary is somewhat brighter in colour. The figure behind her is Peter with his keys; further down are the Old Testament "saints": King David with his harp, Moses and the stone tablets of the decalogue, Noah and his ark. John the Baptist kneels opposite Mary, while Jesus Christ is enthroned on high. El Greco depicts the soul of the dead Gonzalo Ruiz as the transparent figure of a child borne up in the arms of an angel. The soul's progress appears obstructed, however, or restricted to a narrow strait between two converging clouds.
This might seem surprising, given the high distinction conferred upon the pious man at the burial of his mortal remains. An inconsistency perhaps? In fact, the artist had good reason not to take for granted the soul's unimpeded progress to heaven. The reason lay in the political predicament of the church at the close of 16th century.




Fighting for the Holy Virgin

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (detail)

El Greco painted in the century of the Reformation. Protestant thought had found few followers on the Iberian peninsula, but the Netherlands, where it had spread very quickly, and where Spaniards and Netherlandish mercenaries fought each other over towns, ports and the true faith, was part of the Spanish empire.
News from their northern province filled pious Spanish souls with terror: church statues of saints had been cast down from their pedestals, paintings of the Virgin pierced by lances - satanic forces were at work. That the events had less to do with the revival of the church than with the work of the Devil was confirmed by reports of iconoclasts tearing the saints to shreds and leaving the demons at their feet intact.
It was the demotion of their most highly venerated Virgin Mary that disturbed the Spaniards most. Luther, so it was reported, had said Mary was no holier than any other Christian believer, while yet another Reformer had said that if Mary had been a purse full of gold before Christ's birth, she was an empty purse afterwards, and that anybody who prayed to the Virgin was committing blasphemy by exalting a woman to the rank of a god.
The great respect commanded by the Holy Virgin south of the Pyrenees stood in peculiar contrast to the disregard shown to women in Spanish society. Their status was far below that of women in Italy, Germany or France. One explanation may lie in the fact that large tracts of Spain, including Toledo itself, had been under Moorish rule for many centuries. The Moors thought of women as base creatures who, easily tempted, required constant surveillance. Although there were famous nuns in Spain, the mistress of a king, by contrast with her French peer, had no influence whatsoever. Women had no place in the public sphere, as El Greco's painting so ably demonstrates: Mary is the only large-scale female figure among countless men in Heaven and on earth.
In the 16th and 17th centuries the Virgin Mary was the most significant religious and cultural figure in Spanish life: many works by Lope de Vega and Calderon are dedicated to her.
The militant adoration of the Virgin climaxed in the dispute surrounding her Immaculate Conception. This did not, as might be imagined, refer to the begetting of Jesus Christ, but to Mary's own procreation. Her mother was said to have conceived her either without male contribution, or, if a man's presence at the event were conceded, without original sin, for the man was merely God's instrument. Although the pope did not raise the Immaculate Conception to a dogma until the 19th century, it had been tantamount to a dogma in Spain long before. In 1618 the Spanish universities were put under obligation to teach and actively defend the Immaculate Conception.
From a Spanish point of view, however, the Protestants had not only debased the Holy Virgin, they had also got rid of the saints, who were tremendously important to the Catholic faith. To say that El Greco underlines the integral function of the saints in this painting would be an understatement. Together with the Virgin, it is they who intercede with the distant, enthroned figure of Christ on behalf of the souls of the dead; only through their supplication can the barrier of clouds dissolve and the soul find its way to paradise unhindered. The painting's theological intervention demonstrates the rupture of the vital dynamic suggested in the brightly lit undersides of the clouds: the upward surge through the vortex of light to Jesus Christ is obstructed. Since the Reformation had degraded the Virgin and the saints, it was now the task of the Counter-Reformation to effectively demonstrate their significance.




A king among saints


The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (detail)



The painting also contains a portrait of Philip II of Spain, who, in 1586, was still on the throne. He is shown sitting among the saints who, gathered behind John, are interceding for the soul of Ruiz. Philip's empire was the largest of all European states. It not only included the Netherlands and Naples with southern Italy, but colonies in Central and South America, some of which "were literally borderless. This was the empire on -which - in the words of the well-known dictum - the sun never set.
Of course, his life was as remote from his many subjects as any god. Furthermore, the court etiquette he had inherited from his father ensured that court and government officials kept their distance. Only a small elite was ever admitted to his presence, and anybody who handed something to him in person was obliged to do so on his knees. However, there was one important element of his father's etiquette which, characteristically, Philip altered: priests were no longer obliged to genuflect before him. He gave to the ambassadors of the kingdom of God, though appointed by himself, a status far greater than that accorded to the representatives of worldly affairs.
This was altogether typical of Philip's rule. He set greater store by defending his faith than his empire. No personal loss could hurt him more deeply, he wrote upon receiving news of the Netherlandish iconoclasts, than the slightest insult or disrespect to the Lord and his effigies. Even "the ruin" of all his lands could not hinder him from "doing what a Christian and God-fearing sovereign must do in the service of God and in testimony to his Catholic faith and the power and honour of the Apostolic See."
Philip II had a powerful instrument at his disposal: the Inquisition. In other countries the authorities who condemned apostates, unbelievers and witches were purely clerical; afterwards, offenders were handed over to the state authorities, who would then enforce the penalty. In Spain even the trial was subordinate to the throne. The king appointed the Grand Inquisitor, and the persecution of non-Catholics served interests of state. For over 700 years the Moors, finally defeated in 1492, had ruled over almost the whole Iberian peninsula. Only families who converted from Islam to Christinity were permitted to remain in Spain. The same applied to Jews. They, too, suffered enforced baptism.
Though hundreds of thousands of Jews and Muslims had left the country, or were in the process of doing so, Philip still saw Catholic Spain threatened by unbelievers who merely paid lip-service to Christ, or by heretics secretly plotting insurrection. The Inquisition acted as a secret police force, defending the status quo and transferring to the state the wealth and property of those it condemned.
Combined religious and racial persecution was one of the chief factors leading to the decline of the Spanish empire. The Jews had been specialists in foreign trade and finance; the country's best physicians were Jews, and they constituted the cream of its university teachers. It was thanks to Jewish scholars and translators that forgotten manuscripts by antique philosophers "were translated from Arabic into Latin, thus becoming available to Christian theologians.
For their part, the Muslims had farmed vast areas of the country, and the success of agriculture depended on Moorish irrigation systems. Now that they were gone, the fields were bare, the villages depopulated, and the businesses of the merchants collapsed. For Philip, however, as for the clergy, the Spanish grandees and a large section of the Spanish population, this was less important than defending the faith.



Monument to a priest



The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (detail)


The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (detail)

Yet Philip's unrealistic religious zeal was not the only factor that earned him a place among the saints in Heaven in El Greco's painting. Other artists, too, for example Durer in his All Saints' Altarpiece of 1511, gave a place in Heaven to their most prominent contemporaries. In so doing, they enjoyed the support of St. Augustine's "City of God", in which the domains of Heaven and earth were interwoven, providing theological justification for the depiction of mortals as the inhabitants of Heaven.
The priest portrayed reading is Andres Nunez, who, at the time in question, was responsible for the parish of Santo Tome. It is to him that we owe the existence of this painting. Commissioning El Greco to execute the work was the final act in a campaign Nunez had conducted for decades in an attempt to bring just renown to Gonzalo Ruiz and -lest it be forgot - himself.
His first undertaking of this kind had been the attempt to move Gonzalo's grave. The pious Castilian chancellor had chosen an inconspicuous corner of the church of Santo Tome as the resting place of his earthly remains — apparently a sign of his modesty. Nunez wanted his bones moved to a more auspicious place, but his superiors rejected the request, for "the hands of sinners" should not touch the body of one who had been "touched by the hands of saints".
Consequently, Nunez decided to build a chapel with a high dome over the immured coffin. Soon after this demonstrative deed in memory of the lord of Orgaz (it was his descendents who received the title of count), the citizens of Orgaz decided to annul the 250-year-old legacy of two lambs, 16 chickens, two skins of wine, two loads of firewood and 800 coins. Nunez instituted legal proceedings, winning the case in 1569. In order to record his triumph he had a Latin text mounted above the grave, recounting the legend and referring to the rebuttal of the town of Orgaz through "the vigorous efforts of Andres Nunez".
The smart priest thus created a monument to himself. After applying to the archbishopric in 1584, he was granted permission to commission a painting of the miracle of the interment. El Greco was commissioned in 1586 and delivered the painting in the same year. Whatever the work may owe to the personal ambition of a priest, it has to be said that propagation of the miracle of the burial was also fully in keeping with Counter-Reformation church policy. It was seen as important not only to exalt the Virgin and saints, but to defend the need for charitable donations and the worship of relics. According to Catholic belief, the route to Heaven was paved with "good deeds", a view rejected by Reformers, for whom faith and divine mercy were all that counted. The Reformers also vehemently opposed the veneration of relics, a cult of considerable significance in Catholic countries. It was at this time, too, that Gaspar de Quiroga, appointed archbishop in 1577, brought the bones of St. Leocadia and St. Ildefonso to Toledo, thereby greatly adding to the status of its cathedral. Santo Tome's painting of the burial extolled the piety of charitable donations, at the same time defending the worship of relics. For had not two saints touched, and thereby honoured, the mortal frame? Was it not therefore correct to infer that all Christians should honour the mortal remains of the pious, the saints and the martyrs?
The painting's gigantic format complied with Counter-Reformation propaganda in yet another sense: its stunning visual impact. The Protestants, by contrast, wished to see their churches purified of all ornamentation. Places of worship were to be free of graven images, or at least not crowded with visual distractions from God's word. But the Catholics thought otherwise: since the church was God's house, why not use every means possible to decorate it in His honour? The exuberant splendour of Baroque churches was, not least, a reaction against the plain churches of the Reformation.

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (detail)


Reality as a stage set


The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (detail)



The boy pointing so meaningfully at the saint was El Greco's son; his year of birth, 1578, can be deciphered on his handkerchief. When his father painted the miracle, he was eight years old. The contract was concluded on 18th March. El Greco finished the work, whose value was estimated by two experts at 1200 ducats, by Ghristmas. Since the price was too steep for the parish council of Santo Tome, it appointed two experts of its own, only to find that they arrived at a value of 1600 ducats. It was not until July 1588 that the parties agreed - on the lower sum.
El Greco was dogged by financial problems almost all his life. He was not a prince among painters, like Titian, in whose Venice studio he had trained. "The Greek" was born in 1541 on Crete, which, at that time, was under Venetian rule. He learned icon painting, left for Venice where he became a master of spatial representation and architectonic perspective, then moved to Rome. When Pius V, disturbed by the nudity of some of the figures in Michelangelo's Last Judgement, wanted some of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel painted over, El Greco is reputed to have offered to paint an equally good, but more decent, work if the original were destroyed.
It is not known when, or why, El Greco settled in Spain. It is possible he felt ill at ease with the Italian artists' exaltation of corporeal and architectural beauty; perhaps he hoped his celebrations of the afterlife would find greater recognition in Spain. Spanish cardinals, resident in Rome, are likely to have spoken of the Escorial, Philip II's palatial monastery, and El Greco may have hoped to find work there. Instead he settled in the old religious capital of Toledo, the seat of the archbishop. In 1579 the king commissioned a painting from him - the only order he received from that source. Philip apparently disliked the Greek's paintings.
Spiritually they had much in common. For both, the afterlife was more important than this life. Philip longed to rule from the Escorial in the company of monks, and to be able to see an altar even from his bed. This view meant more to him than his empire: his Armada was defeated in 1588; in 1598, the year of his death, financial pressures forced him to give up his war against France, and the northern provinces of the Netherlands were already as good as lost.
El Greco's whole life's work, and this painting in particular, bears witness to his belief that the kingdom of heaven was more important and more real than the world in which we live. Though he is painstakingly exact in his detailed rendering of the lower, worldly half of the painting, the realistic heads and dress have the effect of drawing the burial scene into the foreground, while the isocephalic arrangement of onlookers' heads gives the appearance of the top of a stage set. It is only here, behind this dividing line, that the true life begins. Only the upper half is dynamic, vital through and through, an effect achieved with the help of lighting and a use of depth and line that draws the eye upward.
It remains to be said that not all Spaniards ceded to the uncritical renunciation of reality. The writer Miguel de Cervantes, for example, a contemporary of El Greco and Philip II, took a different point of view. Though he did not attack the religious zeal of his compatriots, his character Don Quixote, a chivalrous and deluded idealist, illustrates the dangers that may befall a person who inhabits a world of fantasy rather than facts, someone who, in pursuit of ideals, loses sight of the ground beneath his feet.


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El Greco



EL GRECO: passionate visionary

Sister Wendy


The greatest Mannerist of them all is the Spanish painter El Greco (Domenicos Theotokopoulos, 1541-1614, called "El Greco" because he was born in Crete). His artistic roots are diverse: he traveled between Venice, Rome, and Spain (settling in Toledo). The Christian doctrines of Spain made a crucial impact on his approach to painting, and his art represents a blend of passion and restraint, religious fervor and Neo-Platonism, influenced by the mysticism of the Counter-Reformation. El Greco's elongated figures, ever straining upward, his intense and unusual colors, his passionate involvement in his subject, his ardor and his energy, all combine to create a style that is wholly distinct and individual. He is the great fuser, and also the transfuser, setting the stamp of his angular intensity upon all that he creates. To the legacies of Venice, Florence, and Siena, he added that of the Byzantine tradition, not necessarily in form but in spirit (although he did in fact train as an icon painter in his early years in
Crete). El Greco always produces icons, and it is this interior gravity of spirit that gives his odd distortions a sacred Tightness.
The Madonna and Child with St. Martina and St. Agnes sweeps us up from our natural animal level, there at the bottom with St. Martina's pensive lion and St. Agnes's lamb, balancing with unnatural poise on the branch of her arm. Martina's palm of martyrdom acts like a signal, as do the long, impossibly slender fingers of Agnes.
We are drawn irresistibly up, past the flutter of cherubic wing and the rich swirl of virginal robe, kept to the pictorial center by those strangely papery or sheetlike clouds peculiar to El Greco. Up, up, rising through the curve of Mary's cloak, we are drawn to the heart of the work, the Child and, above Him, the oval serenity of the Madonna's countenance. We are continually on the move, but never left to our own devices. We are guided and directed by El Greco, with praying figures at the corners to hold us in the right position.




Unresolved questions



Oil on canvas, 142 x 193 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington




Such a dramatic and insistent art can seem too obtrusive: we may long to be left to ourselves. But this psychic control is essential to El Greco, the great — in the nicest sense — manipulator. Even when we cannot really understand the picture, as in the Laocoon, we have no doubt that something portentous is taking place and that we are diminished to the extent we cannot participate. The literal reference to the Trojan priest and his sons is clear enough. But who are the naked women, one of whom seems to be double-headed? Even if the extra head is indicative of the work being unfinished, it is still uncannily apposite. The Laocoon was overpainted after El Greco's death, and the "second head" that looks into the painting was obliterated, while the two standing frontal nudes were given loincloths. Later, these features were restored to the form that we see now.
The serpents seem oddly ineffectual, thin and meager; we wonder why these muscular males have such trouble overcoming them. And we feel that this is an allegory more than a straightforward story, that we are watching evil and temptation at work on the unprotected bodies of mankind. Even the rocks are materially unconvincing, made of the same non-substance as the high and clouded sky.
The less we understand, the more we are held enthralled by this work. It is the implicit meaning that always matters most in El Greco, that which he conveys by manner rather than by substance, gleaming with an unearthly light that we still, despite the unresolved mysteries, do not feel to be alien to us. No other of the great Mannerists carried manner to such height or with such consistency as El Greco.






El Greco's painting depicts events best known to us from Virgil's Aeneid, but El Greco probably knew them from the Greek writer Arctinus of Miletus. Laocoon tried to dissuade the Trojans from letting in the treacherous wooden horse (which led to the sacking of Troy). In the Arctinus version Laocoon, a priest, was killed by serpents sent by Apollo for breaking his priestly rule of celibacy (in Virgil the gods intervened openly on the Greek side).



Laokoon (detail)


El Greco's wonderful circular invention of the boy wrestling with the serpent creates a powerful physical tension. We are kept in suspense as to whether the boy will end the same way as his brother lying dead on the ground. El Greco's unique and unorthodox style admits an unprecedented freedom. Around the boy's outstretched arm there is a broad band of black, which has no spatial "meaning" as such, and which emphasizes the rigidity of the arm and the desperate efforts of the boy. The line flows around the strange, stone-colored figures.



Laokoon (detail)


The figures who appear to watch the scene with
indifference are a mystery. One, a woman, seems
to be two-headed, with one head looking out of the
painting. The figures could be Apollo and Athena,
come down to witness the judgment on Laocoon.



Laokoon (detail)


The allegorical horse in the middle distance trots toward the city, which is spread out under a glowering, doom-laden sky. It is a beautiful landscape, in which the vibrant red-earth ground is covered with a lattice of silvers, blues, and greens. However, this is not the ancient city of Troy, but El Greco's hometown of Toledo in Spain. El Greco painted Laocoon during the time of the Spanish Catholic Counter-Reformation, and his allegorical drama, of transgressing mortals and vengeful gods, set unequivocally in his own modern Spain, is an indication of the orthodoxy of the artist's religious beliefs.



Laokoon (detail)



The anguished head of Laocoon
is an example of the artist's
characteristic light, rapid, feathery
brushwork. Where skin meets
skin - in between toes, lips,
nostrils - he has applied crimson
or vermilion, breathing life and
a suggestion of lifeblood into the
deathlike steely grays of the flesh.


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El Greco



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