After his apprenticeship in Venice and Rome, El Greco moved to Toledo, Spain, where he lived most of his life. In Toledo he painted some of the most important Mannerist works produced in Europe. Born Domenico Theotocopuli in Crete, which was then a colony of Venice, El Greco moved to Venice in 1560, where he became a disciple of the painter Titian.* From there, he moved to Rome, where he entered the Academy of San Lucas. It was in Italy that he learned the Mannerist style of painting that he took with him to Spain. Man­nerism can be distinguished from High Renaissance art by its use of uncanonical proportions and tension in its figures, contrasting or unusual colors, and often a strangeness in its subject matter. El Greco's style underwent significant changes in Spain. His new style was characterized by a rejection of Renaissance geo-metrics, which became increasingly diminished by the heightened attention he gave to a sense of pathos. His characteristic style can be described as a cross between realism and mysticism.
In 1577 El Greco arrived in Toledo, where he met Jeronima de las Cuevas, who possibly became his wife. Although there are no records of their marriage, she was the mother of their son, Jorge Manuel, born in 1578, the same year he received his first commission from the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. The result of this commission is Expolio (1579), which depicts Jesus on Calvary at the moment his magnificent red tunic is being taken away from him. In this painting, Jesus has an elongated torso; this type of elongation will characterize the rest of El Greco's figures. This same year, King Philip II* visited Toledo, saw Expolio, and commissioned El Greco to paint The Martyrdom of St. Maurice for El Escorial, his new palace-monastery near Madrid. However, due to El Greco's increasingly unusual style, the resulting painting of St. Maurice was not to the king's liking and was rejected. Ironically, El Greco was eventually com­missioned by the community of El Escorial to paint a memorial portrait of Philip II after his death. The Dream of Philip II (1598-1604), which depicts the kneel­ing monarch caught between a hellish earthly existence and the promise of heaven, hangs above Philip's sepulchre in El Escorial.
After The Martyrdom of St. Maurice, El Greco undertook one of his most famous paintings, The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586-88). Its theme is the burial of Count Gonzalo Ruiz, who died in 1323. During his life, Gonzalo Ruiz had given generously to the Augustinian order and had established a new church dedicated to St. Stephen. Legend had it that during Gonzalo Ruiz's burial, St. Stephen and St. Augustine descended from the heavens and laid him to rest with their own hands. The painting depicts this miraculous moment. The canvas is divided into two levels, a celestial realm and an earthly one. The lower, earthly level is painted with vigorous realism, which contrasts with the supernatural moment of the two saints appearing. Besides the two saints, several illustrious members of Toledan society attend the burial along with a few figures of El Greco's own time, perhaps including El Greco himself. Most of these figures are in a row behind the saints and are dressed in black, which makes the central figures of the saints and Don Gonzalo stand out; the central trio appears partic­ularly striking due to the rich, golden tones of their garb. A subtle web of gazes among the figures below invite the viewer to gaze upward at the spiritual world.
The upper level is depicted in El Greco's typically spiritual style. Christ as judge appears in the middle of the upper level in a white tunic. At his feet, forming a diamond-shaped composition, are Mary and St. John, interceding on Don Gonzalo's behalf. Directly below them is an angel carrying the vaporous form of the count's soul. At either side of the upper trio is a host of angels and saints, among whose company the viewer might find Philip II. This painting, located in the Church of St. Tome in Toledo, may be one of El Greco's most complex works. In a manner and mood quite different from any of his religious paintings, El Greco also painted a series of "gentleman" portraits between about 1584 and 1594, among which The Gentleman with His Hand at His Breast (1580-85) is perhaps the most widely known. The portraits, most now in the Prado Museum in Madrid, are of unknown officials residing in Toledo. They are all serious in mood; the men's bodies, clad in black, can barely be distinguished from the dark background, rendering the pale face, which is set apart from the body by an elegant white ruffle around the neck, suspended in the middle of the canvas.
El Greco's other secular paintings include classical and picaresque or "ge­neric" themes. El Greco's figures, particularly his female ones, tend to appear somewhat ambiguously gendered. His classical painting Laocoon shows the un­fortunate father and sons, naked and pale, being attacked by the sea serpent of myth. El Greco used Toledo to depict the trio's city, Troy, in the background. Toledo was also used as a backdrop for St. Martin and the Beggar (c. 1597­99), which along with Laocoon hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Wash­ington, D.C.
El Greco's religious paintings can be seen as part of the Counter-Reformation's reaffirmation of iconographic religious themes, although his sec­ular themes, such as the picaresque and classical paintings and the "gentleman" portraits, indicate a more complex artistic inclination. While El Greco's original style had no immediate descendants in Spanish painting, his emphasis on ex­pression over realism resonated in Francisco Goya's "dark period" over two hundred years later.
J. Gudiol, El Greco, 1541-1614, trans. K. Lyons, 1987.
J. Morales y Marín, El Greco, 1997.
Ana Kothe

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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