El Greco in Toledo, Spain

On Exhibit By Barbara Rizza Mellin (This article first appeared in Renaissance magazine.) 
El Greco in Toledo, Spain

Mueso del Greco, Museum of Santa Cruz, Catedral de Toledo, Iglesia de Santo Tomé, 

Although, Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614) was born in Crete, he is most often associated with the Spanish city of Toledo, where he moved in 1577 and lived until his death in 1614 and where he was called simply, El Greco (the Greek).  His famous painting, View of Toledo
can be seen at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. But if you want to see the real city that influenced him and to view his influence upon that city, you must go to Toledo, Spain. El Greco’s work is found in situ throughout this hilltop, UNESCO World Heritage site, as well as in the El Greco Museum and the Museum of Santa Cruz. Occupying the former Santa Cruz Hospital, a 16th century building, the Museum of Santa Cruz is divided into three sections, one of which offers an exceptional representation of 16th and 17th century artwork and a room devoted to El Greco. The El Greco Museum, located in the old Jewish section, was opened in 1911 in a home thought to have been El Greco’s but since designated as an environment similar to the one in which he lived. As a house museum, it includes rooms reconstructed with period furniture as well as paintings by the master artist, his students and his followers.

El Greco had a most unique and easily recognizable style, combining the icon-like compositions of his Byzantine-influenced heritage, the intense coloration he viewed in Venice, and the elongated figures of the Italian Mannerists. His strong almost unnatural (or supernatural) colors and shapes created powerful images that demanded attention. Quite often, also, his adopted city of Toledo became part of the compositions, even if the time period or setting was incongruous with the theme of the painting.

For example, El Greco’s sketch of St. Joseph and the Child Jesus, now in the Toledo Cathedral, the prepared for the larger work, which can be seen in St. Joseph’s Chapel in Toledo, shows a young Joseph comforting the child, Jesus. Above the pair, angels circle, but behind them, the city of Toledo stretches out complete with San Servando Castle, Toledo Cathedral and the Alcázar. 

The Gothic Cathedral of Toledo, begun in 1226 and completed in 1493, is a magnificent gem of a building covering about 70,000 square feet and containing 750 stained-glass windows dating from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Among the great altarpieces, richly decorated chapels, and countless sculptures, we find the Sacristy, which serves virtually as an art museum. Under its fresco-painted ceiling are works by such great Renaissance masters as Zurbáran, Bellini, Raphael, Rubens, Velázquez, and of course, El Greco.

The Spoliation, Christ Stripped of His Garments (1577-79) is considered one of El Greco’s finest paintings and is displayed in its original setting in the Cathedral. Selecting a theme appropriate to the use of the room (a place for changing garments), El Greco shows Christ in vibrant red being disrobed before crucifixion.

Around the sacristy/art gallery, positioned over the pilasters, is a collection of works by El Greco, showing the 12 apostles.  Among these is a half-length portrait of St. Luke, even though Luke was not actually one of the apostles. Here, he has replaced St. Simon. Luke, who is considered the patron saint of artists for his drawings of the Virgin Mary, is shown holding a book open to an illustration of the Madonna, Luke’s bearded face resembling El Greco’s stylized Spanish portraits.

I n another portrait of an apostle, St. Matthew, a lighter but older visage is shown, one that is somewhat disproportionately small for the massive body wrapped with a light red cloak over a bright blue garment. Matthew also holds an open book, but here, with a pen in his other hand, it represents the attributes of a writer. The El Greco Museum also includes a complete apostle series.

A portrait of St. Bernardino (1603-1604), on display at the El Greco Museum, was commissioned in 1603 for the chapel of the former San Bernardino University College in Toledo. It shows a full-length portrait of the saint in a long, hooded Franciscan robe against a somber cloud-filled sky, a cityscape forming the lower background. The current presentation, within a pedimented frame over a decorative arch only accents by contrast the simplicity of the subject. All of the compositional elements—his staff, the upward viewpoint, the three pointed miters representing the three cities where he refused to become Bishop, even the knots on his rope belt—accentuate the verticality of the artwork.

One of El Greco’s most famous works, The Burial of Count Orgaz, can still be found in the Church of Saint Tomé, El Greco’s parish church, an unpretentious building located on a narrow, curving street, so typical of Toledo. The large, multi-figured work dominates the entrance to the Church and recreates what is considered to be a local miracle that had occurred in 1327, when St. Stephan and St. Augustine personally placed Count Orgaz in his tomb in acknowledgement of his acts of charily. El Greco was commissioned to paint the event in 1556, when the miracle was recognized. He shows the scene, but with authentic portraits of his contemporaries and even includes his own son and himself.  The young boy pictured in the front is the artist’s son, Jorge, who years later as an artist in his own right, would paint a copy of the Spoliation. His reproduction, a near-identical copy of his father’s, can be seen at the El Greco Museum. 

The city and its heritage play frequently in the works of El Greco. One large canvas at The El Greco Museum, View and Plan of Toledo (1610), showcases the modern advances the city had made or was planning to make in an effort to regain its position of prestige after the royal court moved to Madrid. An interactive systems that highlights features on the painting as a viewer presses a touch screen, helps visitors to better understand and appreciate the artwork by locating significant city landmarks, such as the Hospital de Tavera, which dominates the foreground.

Perhaps more than with any other painter, the city itself—Toledo— is part of the essence of El Greco’s art.


The Art and Writing of Barbara Rizza Mellin