El Greco, or The Greek, was the nickname adopted by Spanish Renaissance artist Domenikos Theotokopoulos. He was born in October 1541 in either Fodele or Candia. Candia, aka Chandax, is now known as Herakleion on the island of Crete. El Greco’s father Georgios was a merchant and tax collector, however, there is no information available about his mother.
The family was possibly forced to leave Chania in Crete following a rebellion from 1526-1528 against Catholic Venetians, although, El Greco may not have been Catholic at all. Research into his origins suggests that he was a Greek Orthodox. He pronounced himself as a ‘devout Catholic’ in his will, but there is also evidence to suggest that he was not a follower of the faith.
Between 1453-1526, approximately two hundred painters formed the Schuola di San Luca painter’s guild. This was based on the guilds that had been formed in Florence from the 12th century, lasting to the 16th century. They comprised members who were held to meticulous standards that controlled and influenced the arts and trades, as well as being of political importance.
In 1563, at the age of twenty-two, El Greco had been described as maestro (master) Domenigo and probably ran his own workplace. In June 1566, he signed a document in Greek as a witness, naming himself “Master Ménegos Theotokópoulos, painter”.
He would have studied the Greek and probably the Latin classics and wrote 130 books, including the Bible in Greek. He would have trained as a painter of icons at the Cretan Renaissance which thrived from the 15th to the 17th century. This had developed an individual Christian-Greek style, combining Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox artistic conventions, and breaking away from Byzantine (Eastern Roman) art from that Empire. Documentary evidence exists of two painting styles often used in conjunction with each other; maniera Greca – alla Greca which followed the Byzantine style and maniera Latina – alla Latina, which followed the Venetian style. Artists who followed the latter include Giovanni Bellini and Titian.
The Franciscan church and Orthodox monastery both located on Crete saw many works being created in the respective styles; wealthy private collectors also owned numerous examples of the contemporary Cretan style.
El Greco is viewed as the most successful graduate to create an art career in Western Europe in the Cretan style. His style is viewed as unique in the art world, with his elongated figures and combination of Byzantine and Western conventions. His work is sometimes described as pre-dating both Expressionism and Cubism, despite both genres being regarded as avant-garde movements that only developed in the early 20th century. The term ‘expressionist’ was coined in about 1850 but the genre only developed in Germany (the Weimar Republic, particularly in Berlin) before World War I. Cubism is defined as “a style and movement in art, especially painting, in which perspective with a single viewpoint was abandoned and use was made of simple geometric shapes, interlocking planes, and, later, collage”.
At the age of 26, he worked in Venice, prior to moving to Rome in 1570, where he enrolled at the Academy of San Lucas. Seven years later, he moved to Toledo in Spain, where he remained until his death.
Before he left Crete, El Greco painted the Dormition of the Virgin (tempera and gold on panel, 61.4x 45cm), which can be found in the Holy Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin in Hermoupolis, situated on the island of Syros in the Cyclades islands in Greece.
Three other works bear his signature; the Modena Triptych, St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child and The Adoration of the Magi.
The Modena Triptych is a portable altarpiece which is in the Galleria Estense, Modena. The front panels comprise (from L-R) The Adoration of the Shepherds, a Christian Knight and the Baptism of Jesus. The reverse panels comprise the Annunciation to Mary, Mount Sinai and Adam and Eve. The second panel is of pilgrims making their way to Saint Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula. It’s full name, the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai, was built between 548 and 565 AD and is one of the oldest working monasteries in the world, also containing the world’s oldest continually operating library.
St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child (tempera and gold on canvas, attached to panel, 41.6 c 33cm) is housed in the Benaki Museum, Athens. St. Luke was a physician and painter and the work depicts him painting the Virgin Hodegetria, (“She who shows the Way” in Greek), or the Virgin Mary, indicating the infant Jesus as Mankind’s salvation.
The Adoration of the Magi (1565-1567) is an oil on panel, part of a wooden chest (56 x 62cm) and is in the Benaki Museum, Athens. It refers to the biblical passage Matthew 2:11 “And when they have come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh” (King James Version).
El Greco’s friend Giorgio Giulio Clovio (1498-1578) was a Croation illuminator and miniaturist who moved to Italy at the age of 18. He himself was known as the ‘Michelangelo of the miniature’ but considered El Greco to be “a rare talent in painting”. Clovio wrote a letter saying that El Greco was a ‘disciple’ of Titian, by then in his eighties. El Greco completed two portraits of Clovio; one together with Titian, Michelangelo, and Raphael, whom he considered as his greatest influences, despite the latter two having died before El Greco arrived in Rome.
The other painting of his friend, Portrait of Giulio Clovio (c. 1571), oil on panel (58 x 86cm) was commissioned by cardinal Allessandro Farnese and is now housed in the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples.
Despite El Greco being greatly influenced by Michelangelo’s work, he is said to have told pope Pius V that “he was a good man, but he did not know how to paint”. El Greco offered to paint over the Master’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. He did, however, admire Correggio, considered to be a master of chiaroscuro and the Mannerist Parmigianino. El Greco’s opinion of Michelangelo earned him enemies in Rome, and after a falling out with Cardinal Farnese, he was forced to leave the palace. Archives reveal that on 6 July 1572, El Greco complained about this treatment, but on 18 September that year, he joined the Roman Guild of St. Luke as a miniature painter, after paying the necessary levies. At the end of the year, he opened his own workshop and hired two assistants, Lattanzio Bonastri de Lucignano and Francisco Preboste. The former died in Rome aged about 35 after falling from a scaffold.
In 1577, El Greco moved to Madrid before relocating to Toledo by July that year. His first commission there was The Assumption of the Virgin (1577-1579), oil on canvas, 401 x 228cm, for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. He was awarded the commission almost by default; Philip II of Spain appointed Juan Bautista de Toledo as architect of the El Escorial palace as a monument to Toledo’s position as the Christian capital of Spain, but was unable to secure artists of any merit to complete the paintings he required. He eventually appointed Juan Fernandez de Navarrete, but the artist died in 1579.
In the interim, El Greco has met various influential men through Clovio and a member of the noble Orsini family, including Luis de Castella, son of the dean of the Cathedral of Toledo. This alliance assisted El Greco in securing the contract to complete nine paintings for Santo Domingo.
El Greco planned to win Philip’s favour and initially did so with two paintings, Allegory of the Holy League and Martyrdom of St. Maurice. However, for reasons not explained, the king was not satisfied with the work and no further commissions were extended to the artist. El Greco did not subscribe to classically accepted forms of proportion and measurement; rather he “regarded colour as the most important and the most ungovernable element of painting and declared that colour had primacy over form”. Researchers of the 20th century have postulated that the artist may have had problems with his sight – renowned ophthalmologists have said the artist may have had astigmatism or strabismus which caused him to see bodies longer than they actually were. Other experts dispute this opinion, saying that even if he had any affliction, he would have been able to adapt and paint figures with normal proportions. A Dr. Arturo Perera thought that El Greco’s style may have been a result of cannabis use.
Despite El Greco’s initial plans not to remain in Toledo, this rebuff by the king forced him to stay in the city. He made a successful life for himself there; in 1585, he took occupation of a complex comprising three apartments with twenty-four rooms owned by the Marquis de Villeria and worked from there until his death.
There is some speculation as to El Greco’s sexuality, despite his fathering a son, Jorge Manuel Theotocopuli, born in 1578, with a Spanish companion named Donna Jerónima de las Cuevas. They never married although they lived together. Francisco Preboste, who had accompanied El Greco from Rome, remained a trusted and close confidante and friend for more than thirty years. He signed as a witness to many transactions that El Greco entered into, including the lease of the house in Toledo and the collection of many art pieces.
As related in Jesús Sánchez Luengo’s book “The enigmas of Dominico Theotocopoulos El Greco”, soon after the pair arrived in Spain, a young man of 24 years had been executed for sodomising two ten-year-old boys. The puritanical beliefs in Toledo probably encouraged El Greco and Preboste to practice great discretion, if indeed they had a sexual relationship. Authors Somerset Maugham and Ernest Hemingway and the French poet Jean Cocteau all believed El Greco was homosexual, partly due to his androgynous figures.
El Greco’s most significant work is The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586-1588), oil on canvas 480 x 360 cm. It can be found in the Iglesia de Santo Tomé, Toledo. He received the commission on 12 March 1586 and the contract stipulated that payment would be ‘determined by appraisal’ and that El Greco would pay for all materials. The delivery date was to be by Christmas 1587. The work was completed between late 1587 and early 1588 and after protracted negotiation, the amount of 13 200 reales was agreed on, but unhappy with this, the artist is said to have commented that “As surely as the rate of payment is inferior to the value of my sublime work, so will my name go down to posterity as one of the greatest geniuses of Spanish painting”.
The work originated from the story of the burial of Don Gonzalo de Ruíz, known for his generosity and who had bequeathed a donation in perpetuity to the Iglesia de Santo Tomé. It is said that St. Augustine and St. Stephen descended from Heaven to bury Don Ganzalo. However, in 1652, the donations were discontinued by the town of Orgaz, and the parish priest, Andrés Núñez, sued for the resumption of the payments. Wanting to honour the generous patron, Núñez commissioned El Greco to complete the enormous work. The painting is divided into two horizontal sections; divine in the upper and earthly in the lower. Many of the local dignitaries and townspeople are realistically depicted, as specified in the contract. The artist also included his son, identified by the date of his birth on a pocket, and a self-portrait.
El Greco painted many more pieces for the last twenty or so years of his life. Many of his subjects recur, including Christ Carrying the Cross, of which eleven originals are known to exist, and Agony in the Garden. A version of this, painted in 1590, oil on canvas, 102 x 131 cm, is housed in the National Gallery, London. The Holy Family with Mary Magdalen (1590-1595) 130 x 100cm is housed in the Cleveland Museum of Art. There are twenty-five known originals featuring St. Francis Assisi; one of these, St. Francis and Brother Leo Meditating on Death (1600-1602) oil on canvas, 168.5 x 103.2 cm, is housed in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
El Greco signed a contract on 9 November 1597 to complete altarpieces for the Capilla de San José in Toledo, and design and gild the frames. St. Joseph and the Infant Christ and the Coronation of the Virgin were completed in 1599, exceeding the contractual end date of August 1598. Two additional side altarpieces, Saint Martin and the Beggar and Madonna and Child with Saints Martina and Agnes were sold to American businessman, philanthropist and art collector Peter A. B. Widener in 1906, via French dealers Boussod, Valadon & Cie. The sale sparked intense debate in the Spanish parliament about the disposal of national treasures.
Between 1596-1600, El Greco executed seven works that comprised the altarpiece for the Augustinian monastery Colegio de doña María de Aragón in Madrid. One of the pieces has since been lost; five of the six remaining pieces – Resurrection, Crucifixion, Pentecost, Annunciation and Baptism of Christ – are housed in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, and the seventh, Adoration of the Shepherds in the National Museum of Art of Romania (Bucharest).
El Greco painted a number of series of the Apostolados; thirteen pieces of one series depicting Christ and the twelve apostles (Christ facing the viewer and the apostles grouped equally on either side facing right and left). One set painted between 1605-1610 is in the Sacristy of the Cathedral of Toledo and the other, painted between 1612-1614, possibly unfinished, is in the El Greco Museum in Toledo.
The artist painted most of his works on fine canvas using a viscous oil medium. He would have used the pigments of his time including the unstable azurite, toxic lead-tin yellow, red lead, vermilion and the non-toxic, plant-based madder lake and the clay-earth ochres. Ultramarine was the finest blue available but was seldom used by El Greco due to its high price.
He is quoted as saying “I paint because the spirits whisper madly inside my head”.
He painted literally until his death; he was occupied with a commission for the Hospital de San Juan Bautista, or Hospital De Tavera, when he fell ill. On 31 March 1614, he gave his son a directive to draft his will, which was witnessed by two Greek friends. He left only a small estate despite having lived in comfort. He had also squandered money and owed two years’ rent by 1611. He died in Jorge’s arms on 7 April 1614 aged 73 and is buried in the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo, where he had purchased a crypt when his health declined.
The Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis in his book Report to Greco (1965) said this of the artist: “It was a great moment. A pure righteous conscience stood on one tray of the balance, an empire on the other, and it was you, man’s conscience, that tipped the scales. This conscience will be able to stand before the Lord as the Last Judgment and not be judged. It will judge because human dignity, purity and valor fill even God with terror … Art is not submission and rules, but a demon which smashes the moulds … Greco’s inner archangel’s breast had thrust him on savage freedom’s single hope, this world’s most excellent garret”.