Navigation (in separate window)

Homepage Art History on Stamps

Search Google

El Greco
(Dominikos Theotokopoulos)
(1541-1614)

Back to Renaissance

El Greco was a "Spanish" Mannerist painter, whose work, together with that of Francisco de Goya and Diego Velázquez, represents the acme of Spanish art. El Greco (meaning “The Greek”) was born in Iráklion, Crete (then a possession of the Republic of Venice), in 1541 and was named Domenikos Theotokopoulos. The Greek stamps on this page mention the artist by his Greek name, Theotokoupoulos, and not by his Spanish adapted name, El Greco. 
 
Spain 1961. El Greco. Self-portrait. Greece 1965. El Greco. Painted signature in Greek Cyrillic.

El Greco. Enlargement of printed name on Greek stamps.

Greece 1965. El Greco. Self-portrait.

Details of his early life and training are sketchy, but he probably first studied painting in his native city. Although no works from his first years survive, they were probably painted in the late Byzantine style popular in Crete at the time. Reminiscences of this style are seen in his later work. He was an erudite man, whose taste for classical and contemporaneous literature seems to have developed in his youth. 
 
Spain 1961. El Greco. Trinity. Spain 1961. El Greco. Nobleman with his hand on his chest. Spain. El Greco. Torturing St. Maujrice.

El Greco. Christ Healing Blind Man.

Early Work in Venice and Rome
About 1566, El Greco went to Venice, where he remained until 1570. 

He was employed in the workshop of Titian and was also strongly influenced by Tintoretto, both masters of the High Renaissance. 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. The sculptural qualities of the work of Italian artist Michelangelo inspired him, as is evident in his Pietŕ, and Purification of the Temple A study of Roman architecture also reinforced the stability of his compositions, which often include views of Roman Renaissance buildings. 
 
Move to Spain 
In Rome he met several Spaniards associated with the church in Toledo, who may have persuaded him to come to Spain. In 1576 he left Italy and, after a brief sojourn in Malta, arrived in Toledo in the spring of 1577. 

He quickly began work on his first Spanish commission, producing for the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo the sumptuous Assumption of the Virgin (1577, Art Institute of Chicago), a painting that marks a turning point in his art. 

El Greco. Assumption of the Virgin.

USSR 1970. El Greco. The Apostles Peter and Paul.

Although compositionally based on Titian's Assumption (1516-1518) in Santa Maria dei Frari in Venice, the colors and spatial relationships are less Italianate. 

A move toward non normative colors, groupings, and figural proportions became more marked in El Greco's art with each successive phase. 

  • USSR 1970.  The Apostles Peter and Paul, painted 1587.  The painting belongs to the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

El Greco was anxious to be given the commission to fresco the walls of the newly built royal monastery-palace of El Escorial near Madrid, completed in 1582. He submitted several paintings to King Philip II for approval but was denied the commission. One of these, The Triumph of the Holy League (The Dream of Philip II, 1578-1579, versions in El Escorial and in the National Gallery, London), proves his ability to combine complex political iconography with medieval motifs. 

El Greco also worked for Toledo Cathedral: The Disrobing of Christ (1577-1579) for the sacristy presents a splendid image of Christ in a rich red garment, closely surrounded by his captors. The work caused the first of several lawsuits brought by the artist against his patrons, who objected to its high price. 
 
Greece 1965. El Greco. Disrobed Christ. Spain 19i61. El Greco. Disrobed Christ. Greece 1965. El Greco. Concert of the Angels.

Emergence As a Spanish Master 
In 1586 El Greco painted one of his greatest masterpieces, The Burial of Count Orgaz, for the Church of Santo Tomé in Toledo. This work, still in place, portrays a 14th-century Toledan nobleman laid in his grave (in actuality situated just below the painting) by Saints Stephen and Augustine. 

Above, the count's soul rises to a heaven densely populated with angels, saints, and contemporary political figures. 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 pronounced in later years. 

  • Spain 1961. El Greco. Burial of Count Orgaz. 

Spain 1961. El Greco. Burial of Count Orgaz.

These characteristics may be associated with international mannerism, which is still evident in the art of El Greco sometime after it had ceased to be widely popular in European painting. El Greco's intensely personal vision was rooted in his highly cultivated spirituality. Indeed, there is present in his canvases a mystical atmosphere similar to that evoked in the writings of such contemporaneous Spanish mystics as Saint Teresa of Ávila and Saint John of the Cross, although no evidence exists that El Greco had any personal contact with them. 
 
Spain 1961. El Greco. St. Peter. Spain 1961. El Greco. Virgin Mary. Spain 1961. El Greco. Prayer in the Garden.

Toledo
El Greco was a prosperous man. He had a large house in Toledo, where he received members of the nobility and the intellectual elite, such as the poets Luis de Gongora and Fray Hortensio Felix de Paravicino, whose portrait, painted by El Greco from 1609 to 1610, is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. El Greco also painted views of the city of Toledo itself, such as View of Toledo, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, even though landscape was a genre traditionally neglected by Spanish artists. "View of Toledo" is El Greco's only surviving landscape painting.  

The city of Toledo, which is over 18 centuries old, stands on top of a granite hill surrounded on three sides by the gorge of the River Tagus.  Successively, this ancient city was a Roman town, the capital of the Visigothic kingdom, a stronghold during the emirate of Cordoba and an imperial city in the times of Carlos V. Toledo is the keeper of more than two millennia of history.  Its masterpieces are the product of heterogeneous civilizations in an environment where the existence of three major religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - was a major factor. This tolerant cohabitation, which lasted into the Middle Ages, was to leave a profound mark. 

Greece 1965. El Greco. Toledo. United Nations (Geneva) 2000. World Heritage Site of Toledo, Spain. Spain 1967. The Archbisiop of Toledo, San Ildefonso. After a painting by El Greco.

The very design of Toledo is proof in itself of the selfsame plurality that came to manifest itself in the layout of streets and quarters, with its respect for Jewish and Islamic tradition, and in the architecture, Mudejar art in particular, which is a subtle synthesis of the styles, contributions and needs of the three religious communities.  

While Toledo lost its title of capital in 1561, this actually made it possible for the historical heritage of so many centuries of splendour to be conserved almost intact within the city walls.  In 1986, it was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.  Do have a close look at the UN-stamp with a panoramic view of the city, and El Greco's painting.  It is amazing to notice the same city, yet with some hundred years of interval between El Greco's painting and the city of our time.  

Later Paintings 
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" (signed in Greek, as was the artist's custom), and Adoration of the Shepherds, both in the Prado, seem to pulsate with an eerie light generated by the holy figures themselves. 

In addition, the Adoration figures are enveloped by a steamy haze, observable in other late works, which intensifies the mystical nature of the event. 

Equatorial Guinea 1976. El Greco. Baptism of Christ. Spain 1961. El Greco. Baptism of Christ.

The below paintings, issued by Bulgaria 1991, are all painted within the latest 25 years of El Greco's life, in the period from 1590 and until his death in 1614.

Bulgaria 1991. El Greco. Christ Carrying the Cross.

Christ Carrying the Cross

Bulgaria 1991. El Greco. The Holy Family with Virgin Mary.

The Holy Family
with Virgin Mary

Bulgaria 1991. El Greco. St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist.

St. John the Evangelist and 
St. John the Baptist

Bulgaria 1991. El Greco. St. Andrew and St. Francis.

St. Andrew and St. Francis

Bulgaria 1991. El Greco. Holy Family with St. Mary Magdalene.

Holy Family 
with St. Mary Magdalene 

Bulgaria 1991. El Greco. Virgin Mary (detail).

Virgin Mary (detail) 

Bulgaria 1991. El Greco. Cardinal Nino de Guevara.

Cardinal Nino de Guevara

Subjects of classical mythology, such as the Laocoon, attest to El Greco's humanistic learning and his brilliantly personal and novel approach to traditional themes. Laocoon, in Greek mythology, priest of Apollo, god of the sun, or of Poseidon, god of the sea. 

The Vatican 1977.  Laocoon. From the set of Sculptures in the Vatican Museums.

In the last year of the Trojan War, the Greeks prepared a giant wooden horse, which they pretended was a votive offering to the goddess Athena, but which was in reality a hiding place for Greek soldiers. 

Laocoon, fearing a ruse, vainly urged the Trojan leaders to destroy the gift, warning “I fear the Greeks even when they come bearing gifts.” While the people were trying to decide if they should risk bringing the horse inside the city walls for the sake of the favorable omens supposedly connected with it, Poseidon, the divinity most bitter toward Troy, sent two fearful sea serpents swimming to the land. 

Advancing straight to the spot where Laocoon stood with his two sons, the serpents wrapped their coils around the children. Laocoon struggled to tear them away, but they overpowered him and strangled him and his sons. The Trojans, convinced that this was a signal from heaven to ignore Laocoon's advice, brought the horse within the city walls and thus directly contributed to their own destruction.

The most famous literary interpretation of the Laocoon legend is in Virgil's Aeneid. The most famous representation in art is a marble sculpture of the priest and his sons being crushed in the coils of the serpents; this group, known simply as Laocoon dates from the 1st century bc, and is now in the Vatican in Rome. 

El Greco. Laocoon.

El Greco died in Toledo on April 7, 1614, and he was buried there in Santo Domingo el Antiguo, for which church he executed his first Spanish commission "The Assumption of the Virgin" (1577). 

Sources and links: 

Other Renaissance Artists on this site: 

Tapestry

Back to Renaissance


Navigation (in separate window)

Homepage Art History on Stamps

Search Google

Revised 24-jul-2006. Ann Mette Heindorff
Copyright © 1999-2007. All Rights Reserved

Homepage Heindorffhus