known by the hybrid Spanish-Italian name of El Greco was born on the
Greek island of Crete in 1541 when it was under Venetian domination.
His father, Jorghi was a tax collector and his older brother,
Manoussos, an influential member of the island’s civic community worked
as a customs official at the port. There were several schools of
painting on the island, most were run by Orthodox masters and Domenikos
showed an interest in the visual arts quite early in life. He began to
learn about Italian painting through the engravings and activities of
the Candia painters such as Jorghi Klontzas and Michail Damaskinos who
had been to Venice and had introduced the republic’s artistic
innovations to the tradition of icons. Perhaps El Greco worked in
Klontzas’ atelier since it is certain that he was trained on Crete
where he lived until 1567. His early paintings must have remained close
to the traditional Byzantine style as we can see from some works such
as Dormitio Virginis (church of Dormitio Virginis at
Ermoupolis) which, in spite of some western touches is not distant from
XV century Cretan style. In 1567 Domenikos moved to Venice where he
frequented Titian’s studio and updated his own pictorial language to
achieve an original combination of Greek and Venetian elements. The Modena Triptych
(Modena, Galleria Estense) dates from the early years in Venice. He
painted mainly religious scenes, but also had to work on portraits, a
genre that was foreign to his early Byzantine-style training. In the
summer of 1580 he moved to Rome for reasons which, even today, are
still unclear. He was a guest of Alessandro Farnese until he left for
Spain in 1576. In 1572 he was registered in the Academy of St. Luke as
a miniaturist and that same year he began his own professional activity
with the help of a pupil and assistant, Lattanzio Bonastri of Siena. He
began his Spanish life in Madrid where he stayed for a year before
moving definitively to Toledo. During those years he seemed to move
closer to his eastern and Byzantine roots and a counter-reformist
spiritual and religious position which, in his paintings, is manifested
in the gradual dematerialization of form and an accentuation of the
visionary aspects of the composition.
Modena Triptych, recto
This painting marks the transition from the immobile Byzantine mode, typical of the artist’s early years, to the pictorial world of Venice where he had moved in 1567. The chromatic solutions and swift brushstrokes reveal his familiarity with Venetian art, while the decorations of the frame, that is part of the Venetian cabinet-makers’ repertory was also repeated in Crete. On the front and back of the triptych are six scenes painted in egg tempera on wood. The Adoration of the Shepherds on the back is based on paintings of the same theme by Titian, Bonasone and Parmigianino, but there is no lack of influence from Dürer’s graphics. In the center is The Last Judgment with a triumphant Christ crowning a Christian knight.
Modena Triptych, verso
This painting marks the transition from the immobile Byzantine mode, typical of the artist’s early years to the pictorial world of Venice where he had moved in 1567. The chromatic solutions and swift brushstrokes reveal his familiarity with Venetian art, while the decorations of the frame, that is part of the Venetian cabinet-makers’ repertory was also repeated in Crete. On the front and back of the triptych are six scenes painted in egg tempera on wood. For the Annunciation El Greco used a print by Caraglio as his initial model. In the center of the panel is a Mount Sinai. This most fantastic scene, that was frequent in Byzantine works, is based on a folk engraving that El Greco reinterpreted with the visionary character that distinguishes all his paintings.
Christ Cleansing the Temple
When he left Venice, Theokopoulos moved to Rome where he was a guest of the Farnese family. In the zealous Counter-Reformation climate of the city he did a painting that was profoundly Anti-Lutheran, the Christ Cleansing the Temple that is related to the Christ Healing the Blind in the Galleria Nazionale in Parma. The theme of the painting alludes to the purification of the Church. Dated on the lower left, the painting reveals a similarity to Tintoretto’s language in the dramatic agitation of the composition and in the luminous texture.Iconography
Christ Healing the Blind
When he left Venice, Theokopoulos moved to Rome where he was a guest of the Farnese family. In the zealous Counter-Reformation climate of the city he did a painting that was profoundly Anti-Lutheran, the Christ Healing the Blind that is related to Christ Cleansing the Temple of Washington. The canvas alludes to the Catholic Church that is purifying the places of worship and opening the eyes to the true faith. The young man at the extreme left, traditionally considered a self-portrait of the artist, has been identified as a young member of the Farnese family, most probably Alessandro (born in 1545) the future duke of Parma and a victor of the battle of Lepanto.Iconography
Towards the end of his Venetian period, El Greco drew on the compositional scheme of the Annunciation with significant perspective that Titian had brought to Venice in the ‘Twenties. In addition to indicating the lasting popularity of Titian’s works, El Greco’s reinterpretations confirm the metamorphosis of Theokopoulos from a “Greek” master to a Western artist. In the Madrid Annunciation God is manifested as golden sunlight that pierces the dark clouds to send His dove. This painting is a reworking of the analogous scene on the front side of the Modena Triptych where the figures are similarly arranged and where there is already strong perspective.
Assumption of the Virgin
After a brief stay in Madrid El Greco moved to Toledo where work was busily moving ahead on the church of Santo Domingo adjacent to the convent of Bernadine nuns. Started in 1575, the modernization of the old Cistercian building required a large number of paintings and El Greco became involved through the offices of Don Diego de Castilla who, by offering him this important commission, wanted to tie him to the city for a certain period. The cycle of paintings was meant for the retablo of the main altar and the two lateral altars, but they have been scattered through several collections such as the Assumption of the Virgin that is now in Chicago, that is played out in the pale tones of the sarcophagus and the background. There are only three originals by El Greco in the retablo, all the others are copies.Iconography
El Espolio (The Spoliation – Christ Stripped of His Garments)
Don Diego de Castilla was the middleman for this important commission of the altarpiece for the Toledo cathedral. In 1577 the painting was appraised as being worth 227 ducats as opposed to the 800 the artist had requested. The clients demanded a discount because the painter had strayed from the Gospel by having added the three Mary’s to the scene on Golgotha. In fact, he had followed the passage contained in St. Bonaventure's Meditationes de Passione Jesu Christi. The composition is rendered from an unusual viewpoint that combines an non-perspective neo-Byzantine module with spatial concepts derived from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. In a tangle of figures that are rendered almost indistinguishably by the uniformity of color even though they are highly characterized, Christ, with an illuminated face, comes forward, dressed in a lacquer-red mantle that is about to be removed by the soldier on the left.Iconography
The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice
El Greco moved to Spain in 1576 where he worked for Philip II. The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice was painted for one of the chapels in the church at Escorial, a huge architectural and artist project ordered by the king. The painting did achieve the hoped-for success because Philip II did not understand the inventive scope of what, today, is considered one of the artist’s greatest masterpieces. Among the soldiers of the “Theban Legion” there are portraits of some of the highest ranking military officers of the royal court. Among these, in the second row on the right we can recognize Emanuele Filiberto, duke of Savoia and grand master of the Order of St. Maurice, and Alessandro Farnese, duke of Parma and nephew of Philip. The chromatic splendor is based on cold colors, from lilac to indigo, the strongly Titian-like figures are elongated and the narrative arrangement of the episodes reveals a late-Byzantine scheme. The painting was put in a secondary position at Escorial and was later replaced by a painting of the same subject by Romolo Cincinnato of Umbria.Iconography
Entierro del conde de Orgaz
This painting is signed and dated 1578 even though it was definitely done between 1586 and 1588. The date appears on the handkerchief sticking out of the pocket of Jorge Manuel, the boy kneeling in the foreground on the left, indicating the burial, and it may be the year of his birth. The theme is the burial of Gonzalo Ruiz, known as the count of Orgaz, a benefactor of the Church who died in 1323. According to legend, his body was laid into the tomb in the church of San Tomé by Saints Augustine and Stephen and further proof of this miracle were said to occur in 1583 and are shown at the bottom of El Greco’s painting. This is a huge “group portrait” ordered by Andrés Nuñes, the parish priest and it shows many members of the high Spanish aristocracy. In addition to the portrait of the priest, conducting the service, we can identify Diego de Covarrubias, and a self-portrait of the artist. The figure of the Virgin Mary, the only female in the painting, reveals features of Doña Jeronima de Las Cuevas. Above, the triumphant Christ is surrounded by a host of saints and beneath him are the Virgin and John the Baptist.
Saint Joseph and the Christ Child
From 1597 to 1599 El Greco worked on the decorations for the chapel of San José in Toledo, commissioned by the merchant Martin Ramirez who died in 1589. He had changed the original dedication of the church from St. Theresa of Avila to St. Joseph, to whom the saint was particularly devoted. The altarpiece depicting St. Joseph and the Christ Child, was painted for the main altar along with the Coronation of the Virgin. The St. Joseph is still in its original place. It belongs to the artist’s mature period and is distinguished by a complex luminous contrast that recalls the works he saw in Italy, specifically paintings by Correggio, Titian and Tintoretto.Iconography
Saint Martin and the Beggar
From 1597 to 1599 El Greco worked on the decorations for the chapel of San José in Toledo, commissioned by the merchant Martin Ramirez who died in 1589. He had changed the original dedication of the church from St. Theresa of Avila to St. Joseph, to whom the saint was particularly devoted. The altarpiece with Saint Martin on horseback was original conserved in the left altar of the chapel and is one of the Cretan painter’s most admired works, not only because it is an outstanding example of his mature style, but for the outstanding chromatics, played out in pale colors, especially shades of green. In addition to the St. Martin, the chapel decorations included the Coronation of the Virgin and St. Joseph and the Christ Child, that are both in loco, and the Madonna and Child with Saint Martina and Saint Agnes that is now in Washington D.C..Iconography
Madonna and Child with Saint Martina and Saint Agnes
From 1597 to 1599 El Greco worked on the decorations for the chapel of San José in Toledo, commissioned by the merchant Martin Ramirez who died in 1589. He had changed the original dedication of the church from St. Theresa of Avila to St. Joseph, to whom the saint was particularly devoted. The altarpiece with the Madonna andChild with Saint Martina and Saint Agnes was originally conserved on the right altar of the chapel, and is typical of the artist’s mature period. The entire cycle comprised St. Joseph and the Christ Child, the Coronation of the Virgin, that are both still in loco, and the Saint Martin and the Beggar that is also in Washington D.C..