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El Greco - painter of the spirit
Culture . Tradition

Famous Cretans: El Greco, painter of the spirit

El Greco rejected naturalism as a vehicle for his art just as he rejected the idea of an art easily accessible to a large public.

El Greco is one of the few old master painters who enjoys widespread popularity

Like Vermeer, Piero della Francesca, and Botticelli, he was rescued from obscurity by an avid group of nineteenth-century collectors, critics, and artists and became one of the select members of the modern pantheon of great painters.

For Picasso, as for so many later admirers, El Greco was both the quintessential Spaniard and a proto-modern—a painter of the spirit. It was as a painter who “felt the mystical inner construction” of life that El Greco was admired by Franz Marc and the members of the Blue Rider school: someone whose art stood as a rejection of the materialist culture of modern life.

El Greco painted this masterpiece of dramatic storytelling either in Venice or in Rome, where he worked after leaving Crete in 1567 and before moving to Spain in 1576. It illustrates the Gospel account of Christ healing a blind man by anointing his eyes.

Born in Crete (1541), El Greco was trained as an icon painter

Two certain examples survive, and these remind us of the Neo-Platonic, non-naturalistic basis of El Greco’s art, before he set about transforming himself into a disciple of Titian and an avid student of Tintoretto, Veronese, and Jacopo Bassano.

He moved from Crete to Venice in 1567 (Crete was a Venetian territory). There he set about mastering the elements of Renaissance painting, including perspective, figural construction, and the ability to stage elaborate narratives. Among his finest works of this period is The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind.


El Greco was born in Crete. Read also

In this, his greatest surviving landscape, El Greco portrays the city he lived and worked in for most of his life.

From Venice, El Greco moved to Rome, where he worked from 1570 to 1576

These were not auspicious beginnings for his career in Spain, where he moved in 1576. In Madrid, his bid for royal patronage from Philip II failed. Not until he settled in Toledo did El Greco meet with the success an artist of his caliber might have expected. In this ancient city, which El Greco immortalized in one of the most celebrated landscapes in Western art—the View of Toledo—he found a sympathetic circle of intellectual friends and patrons and forged a highly profitable career.

Diego de Castilla, dean of Toledo Cathedral, commissioned El Greco to paint three altarpieces for the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo and was also instrumental in the commission of the Espolio (The Disrobing of Christ) for the cathedral vestiary. These are among El Greco’s most ambitious masterpieces. In them can be found all of the various styles with which he had experimented in Italy: the naturalism that characterized his portraits; the painterly technique he had learned in Venice; the audacious compositional ideas of the late Michelangelo; and a Mannerist emphasis on hyper-elegance and refinement.

El Greco’s most celebrated painting, The Burial of Count Orgaz,

was commissioned by the parish priest of Santo Tomé in Toledo in 1586 to celebrate the restitution of a financial obligation to the church. The picture depicts this miracle as well as the count’s soul being received into Paradise. When seen in the church, the painting has the arresting character of a vision. El Greco’s son Jorge kneels fictively on the edge of the picture plane, looking out and indicating to the viewer the miracle El Greco has conjured up.

El Greco - The Burial of the count of Orgaz
“The Burial of the Count of Orgaz”, El Greco, c.1586-88, to be found in the Church of San Tomé, Toldeo.

The Burial of Count Orgaz is central to our understanding of El Greco because it encapsulates the object of his art, which is to suggest a visionary experience—something that is not an extension of our physical world but of our imaginative faculties.

El Greco rejected naturalism as a vehicle for his art just as he rejected the idea of an art easily accessible to a large public.

He made elongated, twisting forms, radical foreshortening, and unreal colors the very basis of his art. No other great Western artist moved mentally—as El Greco did—from the flat symbolic world of Byzantine icons to the world-embracing, humanistic vision of Renaissance painting, and then on to a predominantly conceptual kind of art. Those worlds had one thing in common: a respect for Neo-Platonic theory about art embodying a higher realm of the spirit. El Greco’s modernism is based on his repudiation of the world of mere appearances in favor of the realm of the intellect and the spirit.

(You read segments of an article by Keith Christiansen, Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

El Greco and the Counter-Reformation

El Greco’s style, highly charged and hypnotic, was well suited to the aims of the Counter-Reformation. In the face of Protestant revolt, the Catholic church sought to reform its practices and reinforce belief in its doctrines. Spain put its vast resources—expanded by conquests in the New World—at the service of the church, and Toledo, because it was the seat of the archbishop, played an active role. The Council of Trent, which met in the mid-sixteenth century to clarify Counter-Reformation goals, explicitly recognized the importance of religious art. El Greco, whose patrons were primarily learned churchmen, responded with intelligent and expressive presentations of traditional and newly affirmed Catholic beliefs. His works underscored with powerful images the importance of the sacraments, the Virgin, and saints.

Timeline of Events in Europe during the Counter-Reformation

1517 Luther launches Protestant revolt
1540 Saint Ignatius Loyola founds Jesuit order
1541 Birth of El Greco
1543 Copernicus publishes On the Revolution of Celestial Bodies
1556 Philip II assumes the Spanish throne
1563 Final session of the Council of Trent codifies Catholic reforms
Building of Escorial palace and monastery outside Madrid
1564 Death of Michelangelo
1565 Spanish explorers establish Saint Augustine, Florida
1576 Death of Titian
Flanders joins the Netherlands in revolt against Spanish rule
1580 First comedias of Lope de Vega produced
1582 Spanish mystic Saint Theresa of Avila dies
1584 Flanders returned to Spanish control
1587 Mary Queen of Scots beheaded after making Philip II her heir
1588 Spanish Armada defeated by English fleet
1598 Philip III assumes the throne of Spain after death of Philip II
1604 Shakespeare writes Othello
1605 First parts of Cervantes’ Don Quixote appear
1614 Death of El Greco
1615 Galileo appears before the Inquisition for supporting Copernican theory

(You read segments from an article of The National Gallery of Art in USA)

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