Domenikos Theotokopoulos was the last and perhaps the greatest mannerist of all time. Born on the island of Crete, Domenikos Theotokopoulos acquired the name El Greco, the Greek, in Italy and Spain. He was first trained in the Venetian School by an unknown Cretanian artist still working under the Byzantine tradition. After working as an icon painter, he left Crete in 1568 to study western-style painting in Venice. There he was influenced by the Venetian artists Titian and Tintoretto, embracing their rich colors and free, sketchy manner of painting.
Such early Venetian paintings as his Christ Healing the Blind Man demonstrate his assimilation of Titianesque color and of Tintoretto’s figural compositions and use of deep spatial recesses. Further Italian inspiration came during the years El Greco spent in Rome, from 1570 to 1576 where Michelangelo had developed a new style called mannerism in which realistic views of the physical world were looked down upon in favor of a more subjective view, one that existed not in nature but in the intellect. Space was compressed, colors were bizarre, and figures became elongated and were intertwined in complex poses. Mannerism, from the Italian word for style, was highly self-conscious and artificial, emphasizing the artist’s ability. Its intellectual basis appealed to El Greco. The sculptural qualities of the work of Michelangelo also inspired him. A study of Roman architecture reinforced the stability of his compositions, which often include views of Roman Renaissance buildings.
In Rome he met several Spaniards associated with the church in Toledo, who may have persuaded him to come to Spain along with the fact that he failed to win major commissions in Rome. In 1576 he left Italy and, after a brief stopover in Malta, arrived in Toledo in the spring of 1577 and remained there for the rest of his life and produced his most important works. Although the spiritual climate of the Counter Reformation, which was extremely intense in Spain during this time contemporary Spanish painting was too restricted to hold the interest of El Greco. He had already formed his style before his arrival in Toledo and continued to explore and intensify the possibilities of mannerism while his contemporaries in Italy returned to more naturalistic styles. He quickly began work on his first Spanish commissions, producing numerous artworks for the church. El Greco’s was well suited to the aims of the Counter-Reformation. The greatest masterpiece and largest of El Greco’s major commissions is The Burial of Count Orgaz, which was bought for 1200 ducados.
The painting illustrates a popular local legend. In 1323, Don Gonzalo Ruíz, native of Toledo, and Señor of the town of Orgaz, died. He was a religious man who, among other charitable acts, left moneys for the enlargement and decoration of the church of Santo Tomé (El Greco’s town church). At his burial, Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine appeared at his funeral and lowered his body themselves. The burial takes place in 1323, but El Greco represents it as a modern event, portraying among those in attendance many of the local aristocracy and clergy; Titan himself could hardly exceed the dazzling display of colour and texture in the armor and vestments. Above, the count’s soul is carried to heaven by angels. The way the upper half of the painting is filled is very different from the way the bottom half is filled. Every form (clouds, draperies, limbs) takes part in the flame like movement toward the distant figure of Christ. The various aspects of Mannerism combine into a single overjoyed vision in this painting. The Burial also manifests El Greco’s typical elongation of figures and a horror vacui (dread of unfilled spaces), features of his art that became more obvious in later years.
His emotional style vividly expressed the passion of Counter-Reformation Spain. The intensity of El Greco’s paintings, resulting from their unnaturally long figures and strong contrasts of color and light, invited a kind of mythmaking about his life and art. El Greco was a prosperous man. He had a large house in Toledo, where he received members of the nobility and the intellectual elite. A feverish intensity can be sensed in many of El Greco’s canvases dating from the 1590s until the time of his death. Baptism of Christ in the Prado seems to pulsate with an eerie light generated by the holy figures themselves. This painting is composed of artistic forms that express its spiritual heart of salvation through beauty in vibrant visual terms. A steamy haze surrounds the figures. The path of light that connects God the Father and the half-kneeling Christ creates the effect an instant connection of the heavenly and earthly subjects at the moment of the baptism. It represents one of the finest examples of grace in artistic expression.
This technique is also present in other late works, which intensifies the mystical nature of the event. El Greco’s painting of the Baptism as well as another of his works, the Resurrection (figure 4), create the beginning and the end of salvation. El Greco died in Toledo on April 7, 1614, and he was buried there in Santo Domingo el Antiguo.
Following his death, El Greco’s work fell into obscurity and, after its rediscovery in the last century, was often misunderstood. El Greco has been called a prophet of modern art, a mystic, and even a man whose sight was distorted by astigmatism, all misconceptions that have clouded understanding of his distinctive but deliberate style. No matter how much recognition he got in Spain he never forget his Byzantine background; he signed his paintings in Greek, right to the last one.
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