El Greco

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11
El Greco
EL GRECO: passionate visionary

Sister Wendy

The greatest Mannerist of them all is the Spanish painter El Greco (Domenicos Theotokopoulos, 1541-1614, called "El Greco" because he was born in Crete). His artistic roots are diverse: he traveled between Venice, Rome, and Spain (settling in Toledo). The Christian doctrines of Spain made a crucial impact on his approach to painting, and his art represents a blend of passion and restraint, religious fervor and Neo-Platonism, influenced by the mysticism of the Counter-Reformation. El Greco's elongated figures, ever straining upward, his intense and unusual colors, his passionate involvement in his subject, his ardor and his energy, all combine to create a style that is wholly distinct and individual. He is the great fuser, and also the transfuser, setting the stamp of his angular intensity upon all that he creates. To the legacies of Venice, Florence, and Siena, he added that of the Byzantine tradition, not necessarily in form but in spirit (although he did in fact train as an icon painter in his early years in
Crete). El Greco always produces icons, and it is this interior gravity of spirit that gives his odd distortions a sacred Tightness.
The Madonna and Child with St. Martina and St. Agnes sweeps us up from our natural animal level, there at the bottom with St. Martina's pensive lion and St. Agnes's lamb, balancing with unnatural poise on the branch of her arm. Martina's palm of martyrdom acts like a signal, as do the long, impossibly slender fingers of Agnes.
We are drawn irresistibly up, past the flutter of cherubic wing and the rich swirl of virginal robe, kept to the pictorial center by those strangely papery or sheetlike clouds peculiar to El Greco. Up, up, rising through the curve of Mary's cloak, we are drawn to the heart of the work, the Child and, above Him, the oval serenity of the Madonna's countenance. We are continually on the move, but never left to our own devices. We are guided and directed by El Greco, with praying figures at the corners to hold us in the right position.

Unresolved questions

Oil on canvas, 142 x 193 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Such a dramatic and insistent art can seem too obtrusive: we may long to be left to ourselves. But this psychic control is essential to El Greco, the great in the nicest sense manipulator. Even when we cannot really understand the picture, as in the Laocoon, we have no doubt that something portentous is taking place and that we are diminished to the extent we cannot participate. The literal reference to the Trojan priest and his sons is clear enough. But who are the naked women, one of whom seems to be double-headed? Even if the extra head is indicative of the work being unfinished, it is still uncannily apposite. The Laocoon was overpainted after El Greco's death, and the "second head" that looks into the painting was obliterated, while the two standing frontal nudes were given loincloths. Later, these features were restored to the form that we see now.
The serpents seem oddly ineffectual, thin and meager; we wonder why these muscular males have such trouble overcoming them. And we feel that this is an allegory more than a straightforward story, that we are watching evil and temptation at work on the unprotected bodies of mankind. Even the rocks are materially unconvincing, made of the same non-substance as the high and clouded sky.
The less we understand, the more we are held enthralled by this work. It is the implicit meaning that always matters most in El Greco, that which he conveys by manner rather than by substance, gleaming with an unearthly light that we still, despite the unresolved mysteries, do not feel to be alien to us. No other of the great Mannerists carried manner to such height or with such consistency as El Greco.


El Greco's painting depicts events best known to us from Virgil's Aeneid, but El Greco probably knew them from the Greek writer Arctinus of Miletus. Laocoon tried to dissuade the Trojans from letting in the treacherous wooden horse (which led to the sacking of Troy). In the Arctinus version Laocoon, a priest, was killed by serpents sent by Apollo for breaking his priestly rule of celibacy (in Virgil the gods intervened openly on the Greek side).

Laokoon (detail)



El Greco's wonderful circular invention of the boy wrestling with the serpent creates a powerful physical tension. We are kept in suspense as to whether the boy will end the same way as his brother lying dead on the ground. El Greco's unique and unorthodox style admits an unprecedented freedom. Around the boy's outstretched arm there is a broad band of black, which has no spatial "meaning" as such, and which emphasizes the rigidity of the arm and the desperate efforts of the boy. The line flows around the strange, stone-colored figures.

Laokoon (detail)



The figures who appear to watch the scene with
indifference are a mystery. One, a woman, seems
to be two-headed, with one head looking out of the
painting. The figures could be Apollo and Athena,
come down to witness the judgment on Laocoon.

Laokoon (detail)



The allegorical horse in the middle distance trots toward the city, which is spread out under a glowering, doom-laden sky. It is a beautiful landscape, in which the vibrant red-earth ground is covered with a lattice of silvers, blues, and greens. However, this is not the ancient city of Troy, but El Greco's hometown of Toledo in Spain. El Greco painted Laocoon during the time of the Spanish Catholic Counter-Reformation, and his allegorical drama, of transgressing mortals and vengeful gods, set unequivocally in his own modern Spain, is an indication of the orthodoxy of the artist's religious beliefs.

Laokoon (detail)




The anguished head of Laocoon
is an example of the artist's
characteristic light, rapid, feathery
brushwork. Where skin meets
skin - in between toes, lips,
nostrils - he has applied crimson
or vermilion, breathing life and
a suggestion of lifeblood into the
deathlike steely grays of the flesh.


St Ildefonso
Oil on canvas, 219 x 105 cm
Monasterio de San Lorenzo, El Escorial

The Visitation
Oil on canvas, 96 x 72,4 cm
Dumbarton Oaks, Washington

The Purification of the Temple
after 1610
Oil on canvas, 106 x 104 cm
Parish Church of San Gines, Madrid

St Jerome as a Scholar
Oil on canvas, 108 x 89 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Saint Jerome Penitent
Oil on canvas, 166 x 110 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Portrait of Cardinal Tavera
Oil on canvas, 103 x 83 cm
Hospital Tavera, Toledo

St Sebastian
Oil on canvas, 115 x 85 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

The Marriage of the Virgin
Oil on canvas, 110 x 83 cm
National Museum of Art of Romania, Bucharest

The Adoration of the Shepherds
c. 1614
Oil on canvas, 319 x 180 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

The Adoration of the Shepherds (detail)
c. 1614
Oil on canvas
Museo del Prado, Madrid


Oil on canvas, 291 x 205 cm
Coleccion Santander Central Hispano, Madrid

The Baptism of Christ
Oil on canvas, 330 x 211 cm
Hospital Tavera, Toledo

The Baptism of Christ (detail)
Oil on canvas, detail size 100 x 82 cm
Hospital Tavera, Toledo

Angelic Concert
c. 1610
Oil on canvas, 115 x 217 cm
National Gallery, Athens

The Opening of the Fifth Seal (The Vision of St John)
Oil on canvas, 222,3 x 193 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Opening of the Fifth Seal (detail)
Oil on canvas, detail size 112 x 92 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York