Although The Renaissance is mainly associated with prominent Flemish painters, also living and working in the period were the skillful and rather iconic artists from other parts of Europe. In Spain, one of the most famous such figures certainly was Doménikos Theotokópoulos, better known as El Greco.
The shortened name "El Greco" implies to the painter’s Greek origin apparently important to the artist, since all of his paintings are signed with his full birth name in Greek letters. El Greco was born in the former Kingdom of Candia (today Crete), at that time part of the Republic of Venice, where he was trained to become a master. In 1570 the painter moved to Rome where he founded a workshop and produced series of works; it was during this period that El Greco embraced stylistic elements of the Venetian Renaissance and Mannerism and was mostly inspired by Tintoretto. Seven years later, he moved to Spain, where he lived and worked in Toledo until his death. El Greco quickly gained fame which enabled him to produce a few major commissions and his best-known paintings.
Today, the El Greco paintings seems outrageously innovative and stylistically quite different to those of his contemporaries, so it is not unusual that his stark, expressionistic, and in some points eerie and surreal aesthetic compared with the 20th-century avant-garde tendencies proclaimed by Expressionism and Cubism. By combing the Byzantine painterly tradition with the Renaissance and Mannerist novelties, El Greco constructed a one-of-a-kind practice marked by the distinct color pallet, chiaroscuro modulations, elongated figures, and unusual perspective.
To get you acquainted with the domains of this prolific Spanish master presented in practically every art history survey, we selected six works which best present El Greco’s impressive legacy.
Editors’ Tip: El Greco: Life and Work-A New History
The authoritative, illustrated life and work of El Greco, one of the world’s most influential and inimitable creative spirits. Domenikos Theotokópoulos, known to us as El Greco, was one of the seminal painters of the Spanish golden age. This magnificent volume features superb new reproductions of his most famous works, some of which have been cleaned and restored, revealing unknown facets of his art. Born in Crete in 1541 under Venetian rule, raised in the iconographic traditions of Byzantine art, and acquainted with both Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic practice, El Greco journeyed to Venice and Rome in the late Renaissance, before finding patronage in Spain at the court of Philip II. He was a painter not only of religious subjects but also of idiosyncratic portraits executed in his own dramatic and expressionistic style.
Featured image: El Greco - An Allegory with a Boy Lighting a Candle in the Company of an Ape and a Fool (Fábula), circa 1580. Oil on canvas, 50 cm (19.6 ″); Width: 63 cm (24.8 ″). Collection Museo del Prado. All images via Creative Commons.
The Holy Trinity was made by El Greco between 1577 and 1579. This profoundly dramatic composition features The Heavenly Father with an Eastern Miter on his head, holding the body of Christ; the two central figures are surrounded by the angels while the Holy Ghost, embodied as a dove, appears above their heads. Underneath Jesus’ feet there are a few cherubs' heads.
The scene is based on Albrecht Dürer’s engraving, and what makes it staggering is the way the painter combined drawing and color in a manner reminiscent of Roman and Venetian perspectives, and the influence of Tintoretto and Michelangelo is apparent. This painting was commissioned by Diego de Castilla for the attic of the main altarpiece at the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo.
Featured image: El Greco - The Holy Trinity, 1577-1579. Oil on canvas, 300 x 179 cm. Museo del Prado.
This El Greco painting is called The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest, and it is often interpreted as the painter’s self-portrait. It was produced around 1580 and is the best known secular portrait and a rare genre for El Greco who mostly did the religious painting.
The painting features unknown gentlemen set against the dark background, all dressed in black with white ruffs. Some scholars believe it is a portrait of Juan de Silva y Ribera, the third Marquis of Montemayor and warden of the Alcazar of Toledo, while others believe it is indeed El Greco’s self-portrait.
Featured image: El Greco - The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest, ca. 1580. Oil on canvas, 81.8 cm × 65.8 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
The Laocoön is a painting El Greco produced between 1610 and 1614. It depicts a famous Antiquity myth concerning the deaths of Laocoön, a Trojan priest devoted to Poseidon, and his two sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus. The father and his two sons were punished by the gods after Laocoön tried to warn his countrymen about the Trojan horse, so they were killed by sea serpents. El Greco interpreted this theme by breaking the harmony of the Renaissance ideals and moving forward to Mannerism.
The last second of the struggle of Laocoön and his sons is shown; while Laocoön, the central figure of the painting, lies down, looking at one of his dead sons, the serpent gives him the final bite. Laocoön’s standing son on the left suffers greatly while the serpent swoops around him. The scene encompasses the figures of Apollo and Artemis as silent observers, as well as an unfinished and disarmed figure appearing on the right.
Featured image: El Greco - Laocoön, c. 1610-1614. Oil painting, 142 cm × 193 cm (56 in × 76 in). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
El Greco’s perhaps best-known painting is titled The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. Made in 1586, it depicts a popular local legend of the time. The composition consists of two sections, the heavenly above and the terrestrial below, and barely gives an impression of a duality due to the fact the two spheres are presented together.
The painting is based on a legend dating from the beginning of the 14th century. In 1312, Don Gonzalo Ruiz de Toledo, Señor of the town of Orgaz passed away; allegedly he was a descendant of the noble Palaiologos family, the last to rule the Byzantine Empire. He was also a philanthropist who donated quite a sum for the renovation of the church of Santo Tomé and wanted to be buried there. However, the legend suggests that at the time the Count was buried, Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine appeared in person from the heavens and buried him with their own hands in front of the dazzled eyes of the living.
Interestingly so, every possible detail of the work's theme is described in the contract signed between the painter and the Church. Although El Greco accepted the terms imposed by the contract, he inserted some modern elements such as certain features typical for a 16th-century funeral procession. The parish priest of Santo Tomé, Andrés Núñez, commissioned the painting for the side-chapel of the Virgin of the church of Santo Tomé, and so he also appears on the composition.
Featured image: El Greco - The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, between 1586 and 1588. Oil on canvas, 480 x 360 cm (15.7 x 11.8 ft). Collection of Iglesia de Santo Tomé.
The Opening of the Fifth Seal (also known as The Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse and The Vision of Saint John) was made by El Greco in 1614 for a side-altar of the church of Saint John the Baptist outside the walls of Toledo. It was painted in the last years of El Greco's life and is based on the scene from the Book of Revelation where the souls of persecuted martyrs ask God for justice upon their persecutors on Earth.
The central figure of St. John is followed by naked souls caught in an emotional breakdown as they receive white robes of salvation. The upper portion of the canvas appears was destroyed in 1880, and the scholars argue it resembled another altarpiece in the church, the Concert of Angels while depicting divine love.
Around 1980s, some scholars proposed that the Opening of the Fifth Seal was an inspiration for the early Cubist works of Pablo Picasso, especially Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.
Featured image: El Greco - Opening of the Fifth Seal, 1614. Oil on canvas, 87.5 × 76 ″ (222.2 × 193 cm); with added strips 88.5 × 78.5 ″ (224.7 × 199.3 cm). Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image creative commons.
The last El Greco painting on our list is called View of Toledo, and it is one of the two surviving landscapes made by this master. The curiosity is that View of Toledo is ranked among the best depictions of the sky in art history along with the landscapes of J. M. W. Turner, Claude Monet, and Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night.
The painting is staggering for its color contrast and unusual perspective. During that time, El Greco was influenced by the Mannerist style, so in this painting he decided to free himself of the conventions and present the common landscape genre, something that was rare among Spanish painters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
Featured image: El Greco - View of Toledo, between circa 1596 and circa 1600. Oil on canvas, 121.3 × 108.6 cm (47.7 × 42.7 ″). Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.