El Greco

Category: Spanish Culture

The city of Toledo, Spain, capital of the Autonomous Community of Castile-La Mancha, has a long and storied history that, according to historians, dates back to at least Roman times, perhaps even earlier.  During this long and impressive history, there have been many famous people who have called Toledo home, but perhaps none is more renowned than the artist born as Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as El Greco.

Born sometime in 1541, El Greco, a nickname which translates literally to “The Greek,” was a painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish Renaissance.  He was born in Crete, which at the time of his birth was part of the Republic of Venice, and the hub of Post-Byzantine art.  He was given his nickname as a reference to his Greek heritage, although normally he signed all of his paintings with his full birth name, written in Greek letters, and often adding the word “Cretan” to the end of his signature.

El Greco trained with some of the best artists of his time and became a master in the Post-Byzantine tradition before traveling at age 26 to Venice, as most Greek artists of the time had done.  His stay in Venice was brief, and in 1570, at age 29, he moved to Rome and opened a workshop where he executed many of his earlier works.  During his time in Italy, El Greco augmented his style with elements of Mannerism and of the Venetian Renaissance.  He returned to Toledo, Spain in 1577, where he lived and worked until his death on April 7, 1614 (age 72 or 73).  While living in Toledo he received a number of major commissions and produced most of his best-known paintings.

Throughout his life and artistic career, El Greco’s vivid and expressionistic style was often met with bewilderment.  In fact, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that he finally garnered the appreciation he so deserved.  Today he is highly regarded as a forerunner of both the Expressionist and Cubist schools, while his life, character and art has served as inspiration for many writers and poets, including Rainer Maria Rilke and Nikos Kazantzakis.  By modern scholars, El Greco has been labeled as an artist so unique that he belongs to no conventional school.  He is best known for his eerily elongated figures and often fantasy-based coloring, combining the Byzantine traditions with those of the Western schools of painting.

During his time in Toledo, El Greco was responsible for many famous works of art, many of which are still on display in the city’s churches, hospitals and museums, including the Museo de El Greco, a museum built to honor the artist and display his works.  Upon his return to Toledo from Rome, he was first commissioned by the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, for whom he painted nine works, including The Assumption of the Virgin, painted between 1577 and 1579.

According to historians, El Greco did not plan to remain in Toledo permanently; his final goal was to win the favor of King Philip and make his mark in his court in Madrid.  Although he did manage to secure two commissions from the monarch—Allegory of the Holy League and Martyrdom of St. Maurice—the king, for unknown reasons, was not fond of El Greco’s work and thus did not offer the artist subsequent commissions.

It was in El Greco’s mature years that he produced his most famous works, including his most well-known painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.  Painted between the years 1586 and 1588, the painting now hangs in the Church of Santo Tome in Toledo.  It illustrates a popular local legend and is clearly and quite interestingly divided into two zones:  the heavenly above and the terrestrial below, brought together compositionally.

El Greco never finished his final project, which included several paintings commissioned by the Hospital Tavera in Toledo.  In March of 1614, he fell seriously ill, and one month later, on April 7, 1614, he died.  El Greco was buried in Toledo’s Church of Santo Domingo el Antigua.

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