Friends In High Places

El Greco, "The Burial of Count Orgaz" (1586)

If you have ever had a fever of 103° and your cough medicine has strong side effects, then you know what it’s like to see some of El Greco’s paintings.  It’s not that his art is as unpleasant as your bad case of the flu, but his images sometimes have that fever-dream quality.  

Understandably, not everyone loves El Greco’s work.  As art historian Paul Johnson put it, “Some consider him an uplifting genius.  Others find his work garish and repellent.”

His real name was Doménikos Theotokópolous, but since he was from Crete, his contemporaries dubbed him El Greco — “The Greek”.  He spent some time in Italy as a young man, and may have been a student of Titian in Venice.  In 1577 he moved to Toledo (the one in Spain, of course, not Ohio) and made a living doing portraits and devotional subjects.  Then he got the commission for a painting that is considered his greatest work:  “The Burial of Count Orgaz”.

The pious Count had died in 1323, and the local legend in Toledo was that at his burial, the heavens put on quite a show, with visions of Christ and the Virgin along with lots of angels.  Supposedly St. Stephen and St. Augustine miraculously appeared and lowered the count’s body into the grave.  (After all that, the punch-and-cookie reception in the church social hall must have seemed anticlimactic.)

El Greco was hired to portray this event a couple of centuries later for the Santo Tomé church, where the count had been a regular.  Even critics who don’t particularly like El Greco’s style acknowledge the technical skill that is evident in “The Burial of Count Orgaz”, and the reaction of El Greco admirers to this painting is Orgazmic.  Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, includes it among the 15 “greatest works of Western Civilization”.

Maybe so.  It is certainly a fascinating combination of mysticism in the upper half of the painting, and realism in the lower portion.  Then there’s the guy in the middle of the funeral party who is looking up — his gaze connects earth with heaven, as does that golden drapery around the lowest angel.

The painting was completed in 1586, and it was very well received by the prominent noblemen and clergy of Toledo.  That may be partly due to the fact that El Greco had included their likenesses among the mourners at a funeral that had occurred well over two hundred years before.  It’s like including Warren Buffett and Steven Spielberg in a historical painting of George Washington’s inauguration,  but sometimes that’s what artists have to do to keep the customers happy.

One of the distinctive characteristics of El Greco’s rendering of faces and bodies is that they are elongated.  In recent decades that spawned a theory that El Greco suffered from astigmatism, a vision problem resulting from oblong-shaped corneas.  Other experts say he distorted figures for dramatic effect, just as Tintoretto and other Mannerists had done around the same time.  The debate about El Greco’s supposed astigmatism goes on, but we’ll probably never know for sure if he needed glasses.

We’ll probably also never get a satisfactory explanation of another El Greco mystery:  What’s the deal with his name?  In Spanish, “The Greek” would be El Griego.  Greco is Italian, but the article in that language would be “Il”, not “El”.  I’ll go along with El Greco, though, because it’s a lot easier to say than the way he signed his paintings.  He used his full real name.

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