In the face of a bank bailout, the only international arena Spain seems to be thriving in right now is the soccer field, but in the late 15th—17th centuries, the country was a world power to be contended with on a grander stage. Under Hapsburg kingship, Spain was the capital of Catholic Christendom and boasted a flourishing artistic scene. Along with Velázquez, de Ribera, Murillo, and de Zubarán, one of the artists to prosper during this period was El Greco. His masterpiece, “The Burial of Count Orgaz,” deftly combines the painterly influences of the Venetian Renaissance and aspects of the Mannerist movement with an intellectual awareness of Catholic learning and visionary elements, resulting in an extraordinary painting that makes a powerful impact.
1. Although El Greco is one of the most celebrated painters of the Spanish Golden Age, he was not one of the country’s native sons, as his moniker implies. Born Domenikos Theotokopoulos in Crete in 1541, he trained as a traditional painter of icons and took a peripatetic route before ultimately settling in Toledo. El Greco first moved to Venice and avidly studied the work of Titian, a leading Renaissance painter. He relocated to Rome but made the enormous mistake of critiquing Michelangelo’s abilities as a painter. Ostracizing himself from the Roman art establishment, El Greco moved to Spain in 1577, and after a rocky start in Madrid, finally found his due acclaim in Toledo.
2. “The Burial of Count Orgaz” was commissioned by a parish priest in Toledo for the church of Santo Tomé, and was completed in 1588. Mammoth in size, it is over 15 feet by almost 12 feet, and its two registers tell the story of a miraculous 14th century burial of a Spanish knight, Don Gonzalo Ruíz de Toldeo. In the lower register, apparitions of Saints Augustine and Stephen inter his body, witnessed by the elites of Toledo society. In the upper register, his soul rises to heaven. El Greco used two styles to demarcate the worldly from the heavenly: the sumptuous brocades, reflective armor, and realistic portrait faces of the Toledans (that’s El Greco himself, sixth from the left) all create an atmosphere of earthly verisimilitude. In contrast, the odd proportions, emanating light, and freer brushstrokes clearly mark the top portion of the painting as supernatural.
3. Picasso believed that El Greco was a harbinger of modernism. Yet important aspects of his work belong to painting traditions that are rooted in the past, particularly Mannerism. Mannerism was embraced by Italian artists such as Bronzino and Pontormo, and by Michelangelo and Raphael in their late works. It emphasized elegance and virtuosity over naturalism. The foreshortening, unnatural colors, and elongated, twisting forms of the main figures in “The Burial of Count Orgaz”’s upper register all owe something to the hallmarks of Mannerism. Mannerism is a movement frequently criticized, but El Greco’s works have escaped that judgment because of the intellect and spirituality with which he infused them.
Image Source and Citations:
Phaidon Press. The Art Museum. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2011.
Christiansen, Keith. "El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) (1541–1614)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/grec/hd_grec.htm (October 2004)