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Famous Painters: El Greco

Posted by Susan Benford

Few famous painters ever created a religious painting as masterful and awe-insiring as El Greco's Burial of Count Orgaz.

And even fewer famous painters can claim their commissions resulted from a lawsuit!


Domenikos Theotocopoulos (El Greco). The Burial of Count Orgaz, 1586. Oil on canvas, 15' 1" by 11' 10". Church of Santo Tome, Toledo, Spain.

Burial of Count Orgaz commemorates the life and death of the Lord of Orgaz, Don Gonzalo Ruiz, who died in 1323 after years of supporting the small, simple church of Santo Tome in Toledo, Spain. The inscription at the lower edge of Burial of Count Orgaz reveals its story:

When the priests were preparing to bury him [Count Orgaz]... St. Stephen and St. Augustine descended from heaven and buried him there with their own hands.  WHY? They said Orgaz bequeathed 2 sheep, 16 hens, 2 skins of wine, 2 wagon loads of wood and 800 coins... all to fall each year from the inhabitants of the domain of Orgaz.

Problem was that "the inhabitants of the domain of Orgaz"  - or Orgaz's heirsrefused to honor this bequeathal to the church. Its priest, Andre de Nunez, sued and won a lawsuit in 1570, leaving this tiny church awash in unfathomable wealth.

Enter one of the most famous painters of his time, Domenikos Theotocopoulos (1541-1614), known as "El Greco".  Born in Crete, which was then a Venetian possession, El Greco went to Venice where he worked in the studio of Titian but was more impressed by Tintoretto's artwork.  He also absorbed the art of other famous painters including the Italian Mannerists, Michelangelo and Raphael; he left for Spain in 1576/77, where he spent the rest of his life.

The Burial of Count Orgaz was commissioned in 1586, more than 2/12 centuries after the Count's demise. 

First note the size of Burial of Count Orgaz -- 15' 1" by 11' 10" -- and try to imagine it on site (image, top). It's 6 feet off the floor in a chapel only 18 feet deep, so viewers have to crane their necks to see the uppermost part of the painting. 

The stone plaque is at eye level and becomes the front of the sarcophagus into which the Count is being placed by St. Stephen, in the ornately embroidered robe on the left, and St. Augustine, who wears a robe embroidered with images of saints and is recognized by his bishop's miter.  

The bottom half of the painting is remarkably realistic; El Greco's Venetian training comes

Domenikos Theotocopoulos (El Greco).  The Burial of Count Orgaz, 1586.  Oil on canvas, 15' 1" by 11' 10".  Church of Santo Tome, Toledo, Spain.

through in the sensuous colors and textures of the clothing.

His talents as a portraitist are readily apparent in the array of men featured here, all prominent Spaniards of the 1580s.  

Here are the characters identified in this portion of Burial of Count Orgaz:

  • In the left foreground is a son of El Greco, who is gazing directly at the viewer like his father, who is directly above the head of St. Stephen (detail, lower right)
  • Andres Nunez, who devoted two years to winning the Count's bequest, is the priest in the gauzy, diaphonous surplice in the far right foreground;
  • To the right of Nunez is another religious official whose crucifix unites the terrestial and celestial scenes;
  • the soul of Count Orgaz, which looks like like a quasi-child swaddled in gauze, is transported to heaven by a winged angel in the  center, and 
  • the Virgin Mother, who is dressed in red and blue, sits at the feet of Christ with St. John the Baptist across from her.

The exacting and static realism of the bottom portion of Burial is replaced in the upper half by frenetic energy, swirling masses of fabric, and ethereal lighting as all are entranced by famous painters el greco detail resized 600the commanding figure of Christ.  

Among those seated in the crowd of men behind John the Baptist is none other than the King.  Ironically, King Phillip II wasn't partial to El Greco paintings, despite El Greco's status as one of the most famous painters in 16th century Spain. (1).

El Greco paintings fell out of favor until they were "discovered", like the works of other famous painters including Vermeer, Botticelli and Piero della Francesca, by collectors, painters and critics in the 19th century. It's hard to fathom how anyone wouldn't be moved by the expressiveness of El Greco paintings.

For Discussion: How does the power and awe inspired by Burial of Count Orgaz compare to other religious works like van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece? Or Fra Angelico's Annunciation? Or the Isenheim Altarpiece?

Please send your comments (all of which must be moderated, so they won't appear immediately).  And thanks! 

1. Penelope J. E. Davies et al, Janson's History of Art: Western Tradition, 7th edition, (c) 2007. Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, NJ, page 630.





Topics: famous painters, El Greco, El Greco paintings

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