Greco's Ghosts

Art. History. Culture.

The Year of the Greek Dude

El Año Greco.

This week, and year for that matter, honors the IV Centennial anniversary of the death of El Greco (April 7, 1614), one of Spain’s most prolific artistic masters. One thing Spaniards are good at, in addition to soccer, curing ham and killing bulls, is paying homage their historical figures who through their talents brought waves of attention to Spain’s culture. I had the good fortune of celebrating the Cuatro Centenario (IV Centennial) of the death of Miguel de Cervantes while studying abroad in the famed author’s hometown of Alcalá de Henares during college. Over the course of a few months the city put on festivals, theater productions and many parties celebrating Cervantes and his magnum opus, Don Quixote. Similarly, the city of Toledo where El Greco lived and died, is host to a year long celebration of the life and works of their beloved painter. 

Blogistemology already celebrated Christmas with El Greco, but the celebration will appropriately continue here. To quote from the Christmas article:

First, let me tell you why El Greco is a badass. I am definitely biased toward Spanish art – the bulk of my study of art and culture revolves around that country. So I’ll be the first to tell you that El Greco (1541-1614) is the best Mannerist. Mannerism, is a strange movement. It often gets nestled in with High or Late Renaissance, but can be recognized as a stylistic reaction against the natural and harmonious ideals of the Renaissance. When I learned about Mannerism, my professor gave an unforgettable analogy of Mannerism to Snooki from Jersey Shore: the key words being “highly artificial.” This is what makes El Greco’s  style the ultimate in Mannerism. Everything about it is highly artificial. And here’s some trivia for you, El Greco means “the Greek,” because he is actually Greek. His real name is Doménikos Theotokópoulos, but the Spaniards couldn’t pronounce that (nor can I, too many effing syllables), so they just referred to him as “the Greek dude.” He is always considered a Spanish painter, despite being from Greece, because the bulk of his life and career was spent in Spain. He lived in Toledo, and died there at the age of about 72 or 73.

So there’s your Greco “in a nutshell” once again. I cannot pick a favorite El Greco piece. Each one of his works has a majesty and spirituality to it, depicted in a more unique manner than any other artist. I do have a special love for The Penitent Magdalene, simply because it hangs in a gallery of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City and I was able to visit in person many times when I used to live there. The embodiment of Catholic guilt, Mary Magdalene was most often represented in art in her penitence, renouncing her previous sinful existence. Her former life of sin is attributed by elements recalling vanity- fine clothing, gorgeous looks, the bottle of oil and the skull for a memento mori. El Greco presents the usual attributes, but with all his Mannerist brilliance. My favorite are the Magdalene’s wide eyes, cast upward in a holy gesture and glossy with fresh tears of sadness.

El Greco (Spanish, born Greek), The Penitent Magdalene, c. 1580-85, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 81.92 cm, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.

Click image to enlarge. El Greco (Spanish, born Greece), The Penitent Magdalene, c. 1580-85, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 81.92 cm, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.

All masters have a masterpiece, and the Greek Dude is no different. His masterpiece is considered to be The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. An altarpiece created for the Church of Santo Tomé in Toledo, this work is an ingenious combination of earthly and heavenly realms all in a frontal pane.  The work depicts the legend of a man named Don Gonzalo Ruíz, a native of Toledo, a knight of the village of Orgaz and a philanthropist who was deeply religious. He committed many charitable acts including a huge donation to the Church of Santo Tomé. Legend has it that when he died in 1312, Saints Stephen and Augustine descended from Heaven in order to bury him themselves. He received the title of Count of Orgaz posthumously.

Click image to enlarge. El Greco (Spanish, born Greece), Burial of the Count of Orgaz, 1586, oil on canvas, 460 cm × 360 cm, Iglesia Santo Tomé, Toledo.

Click image to enlarge. El Greco (Spanish, born Greece), Burial of the Count of Orgaz, 1586, oil on canvas, 460 cm × 360 cm, Iglesia Santo Tomé, Toledo.

The canvas is divided in two, but the two realms are connected with compositional elements in the descending clouds, the flaming torches and the priest’s staff. In the bottom half, funeral attendees are gathered around the two saints who gently lift the Count’s body with a white cloth. The virtuoso rendering of the two Saints garments highlights this portion of the composition. Each saint is wrapped in a heavy priestly mantle, ornately decorated with golden threads and even pictures of biblical scenes. Their bright garments contrast with the dark, shiny metal of the Count’s armor and frame his pale, limp corpse. Behind this group, figures dressed in black line across the middle of the canvas looking onto the scene. El Greco has painted real people in this group, men of social prominence at the time in Toledo including clergymen, scholars and aristocrats. Giving homage to the patrons of Toledo who embraced him and his art, El Greco here displays his accomplished skills at portraiture. Our painter even makes his own appearance among these men, his face peering out directly above St. Stephen’s head. Also included is a portrait of El Greco’s son, Jorge Manuel, who stands in the foreground to the left of St. Stephen with his arm raised, pointing at the Count’s body. Hanging from Jorge Manuel’s pocket is a white handkerchief  bearing El Greco’s signature. The artist and his son are the only two figures who meet the viewer’s eye directly.

Click image to enlarge. El Greco, Burial of Count Orgaz, detail of lower section.

Click image to enlarge. El Greco, Burial of Count Orgaz, detail of lower section.

The pyramid of figures in the bottom of the composition is echoed in its top portion in the trio of St. John, the Virgin and Jesus. The viewer’s eye is drawn upward by the flowing yellow garment of an angel, continuing along the stretches of clouds carrying the Virgin and St. John the Baptist, and resting eventually on Christ. The holy figures are surrounded by other residents of Heaven with apostles, saints, martyrs and the just. In typical Greco fashion, the heavenly clouds seem a little too solid, the limbs of the figures a little too gangling, their heads a little too small and overall features a little too out of proportion. But this is Mannerism, so that’s the whole point.

Click image to enlarge. El Greco, Burial of the Count of Orgaz, detail of upper section.

Click image to enlarge. El Greco, Burial of the Count of Orgaz, detail of upper section.

Burial of the Count of Orgaz is a masterpiece because of the dual representation of earthly and heavenly realms tied together with compositional elements. It is a masterpiece because of the virtuoso rendering of texture in fabric, metal, skin, hair and fire. It is a masterpiece because of the complex narrative taking place: a legend of a knight’s death, biblical figures descending from heaven as well as heaven itself and its holy inhabitants floating above and a gathering of El Greco’s contemporaries rendered in highly skilled portraiture. The artist’s more deeply personal touch is given in a self portrait as well as a portrait of his son, indicating his family’s place among Toledo’s history as well as its then contemporary social hierarchy. Best of all is El Greco’s palette which captivates the viewer with ripe, rich colors, drawing us in and adding to the mysterious and sublime quality of this great Spanish painter. I have read that El Greco spoke of imitating colors as the most difficult artistic task. Despite his apparent frustrations he created a method of contrasting paleness of skin and setting with garments of saturated color that became his trademark style. At this moment I can think of no other artist whose colors are as captivating for me as El Greco’s, not even the great Italians Raphael, Carracci, Titian, or Veronese.

Vino tinto, porfa.
Greco’s Ghosts offers a wine pairing with this article, for paying homage to a dead soul requires drink in hand, no? In honor of El Greco and his home of Toledo, pour a glass of hearty Spanish garnacha to toast the great Mannerist. The regions of La Mancha and Rioja in Spain produce sensational red wines. A nice garnacha would accompany this theme well, its ripeness and richness of fruit and color matching the ripeness and richness of El Greco’s colors. Spanish garnacha is fantastic and you can get some good quality bottles, such as Borsao, for a cheap price. Cheers! Or as the Spanish say, “chin chin!”

2 comments on “The Year of the Greek Dude

  1. November Tango
    April 12, 2014

    Great article. Good work !!!


  2. Ron
    July 20, 2017

    Burial of the count…

    “Although a noble choir of spirits all around,
    The soul hardly knows the new life above
    But already like the sacred crowd.
    She leaves the dark earth like a dove
    And in the new etheric ground
    the power of first youth is found…”


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