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El Greco

El Greco

El Greco

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, widely known as El Greco, Spanish for “The Greek”, was a painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish Renaissance. The artist normally signed his paintings with his full birth name in Greek letters, Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος (Doménikos Theotokópoulos), often adding the word Κρής (Krēs, “Cretan”). He is best known for elongated figures and for marrying Byzantine traditions with those of Western painting.

El Greco was born in Crete, which at that time was part of the Republic of Venice, and the centre of Post-Byzantine art. He trained and became a master Byzantine art before travelling to Venice to work; then he moved to Rome, where he opened a workshop and executed a series of works. In 1577, he moved to Toledo, Spain, where he lived and worked until his death. In Toledo, El Greco received several major commissions and produced his best-known paintings.

El Greco’s style was met with puzzlement by his 16th-century contemporaries, but he found greater appreciation in modern times and is today regarded as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism. His works were a source of inspiration for poets and writers, and he is considered, as an artist, so individual that he belongs to no conventional school.

A Tour of El Greco’s Masterpieces

  • The Holy Trinity
    • “The Holy Trinity” by El Greco is a dramatic and expressionistic depiction of Jesus Christ ascending into heaven following his journey on Earth. The Trinity is represented by God the Father, with a Miter on his head, his Son Jesus and the Holy Spirit symbolised as a dove. Six grieving angels watch over the uprising of the body, while small, cherub faces gather at his feet. El Greco skilfully captures the weight of Christ’s body as he is held up by his father’s arms by placing the elongated Christ figure at an awkward angle. El Greco’s use of brilliant colours and the emotion imbued into the faces make this masterpiece a moving example of religious art.  This painting is one of El Greco´s first commissioned pieces in Toledo; it was created for the attic of the main altarpiece at the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo. Museum: Prado Museum, Museo del Prado
  • Saint Jerome
    • This “Saint Jerome” by El Greco is one of five known paintings of Saint Jerome by El Greco. Saint Jerome is shown in the red vestments of a cardinal, although the office did not exist in his lifetime. He is seated before an open book, symbolising his role as translator of the Bible from Greek into Latin, in the fifth century. His version, the Vulgate, was in use throughout the Catholic Church for many centuries. El Greco’s painting, show him with gaunt, sunken features and a long white beard which are symbolic of his history as a penitent and his retreat to the Syrian desert. El Greco has successfully synthesised the two aspects of Saint Jerome, the scholarly and the ascetic. During the Renaissance, paintings showed him either in his study or performing acts of penance in the wilderness. These pictures adorned the walls of the homes of many humanists and scholars. Museum: Frick Collection
  • The Repentant Saint Peter
    • “The Repentant Saint Peter” by El Greco shows the saint in tearful repentance with the “Keys of Heaven” tied around his waist. El Greco painted at least six different autograph variants over the course of his career in Spain. In this painting St Peter raises his tear-filled eyes to Heaven, his hands joined in prayer. The background scene on the left represents the Magdalen returning from the empty tomb after receiving the announcement of Christ’s resurrection from an angel. The tears of Saint Peter were used by theologians of the Counter-Reformation as a way of drawing a parallel between the saint’s weakness and mortal man. The tearful image was used to elicit an emotional response from the believer to the image and to the church. El Greco made this subject, which was new in the Counter-Reformation period, one of his specialities. This image of St Peter by El Greco is always shown with white hair and beard, and he often wears his yellow cloak over a blue tunic. Museum: The Phillips Collection
  • The Tears of Saint Peter
    • “The Tears of Saint Peter” by El Greco shows the saint in tearful repentance with the “Keys of Heaven” tied around his wrist. El Greco painted at least six different autograph variants throughout his career in Spain. In this painting St Peter raises his tear-filled eyes to Heaven, his hands joined in prayer. The background scene on the left represents the Magdalen returning from the empty tomb after receiving the announcement of Christ’s resurrection from an angel. Theologians of the Counter-Reformation used the tears of Saint Peter as a way of drawing a parallel between the saint’s weakness and mortal man. The tearful image was used to elicit an emotional response from the believer to the image and the church. El Greco made this subject, which was new in the Counter-Reformation period, one of his specialities. This image of St Peter by El Greco is always shown with white hair and beard, and he often wears his yellow cloak over a blue tunic. Museum:  Museo Soumaya
  • Saint Jerome as Scholar
    • This “Saint Jerome” by El Greco is one of five known paintings of Saint Jerome by El Greco. Saint Jerome is shown in the red vestments of a cardinal, although the office did not exist in his lifetime. He is seated before an open book, symbolising his role as translator of the Bible from Greek into Latin, in the fifth century. His version, the Vulgate, was in use throughout the Catholic Church for many centuries. El Greco’s painting, show him with gaunt, sunken features and a long white beard which are symbolic of his history as a penitent and his retreat to the Syrian desert. El Greco has successfully synthesised the two aspects of Saint Jerome, the scholarly and the ascetic. During the Renaissance, paintings showed him either in his study or performing acts of penance in the wilderness. These pictures adorned the walls of the homes of many humanists and scholars. Museum: Frick Collection
  • Saint Jerome Penitent
    • “Saint Jerome” by El Greco show him as an ascetic with gaunt, sunken features and a white hair and beard which are symbolic of his history as a penitent and his retreat to the Syrian desert. The cave-like setting recalls St Jerome’s years as a hermit in the desert. The book symbolises his scholarly activity. During the Renaissance, paintings showed Saint Jerome either in his study or performing acts of penance in the wilderness. These pictures adorned the walls of the homes of many humanists and scholars. Jerome (347 – 420) was a priest, confessor, theologian, and historian. He was born in a village on the border of Dalmatia. He is best known for his translation of most of the Bible into Latin and his commentaries on the Gospels. His version, the Vulgate, was in use throughout the Catholic Church for many centuries. He is recognised as a Saint and Doctor of the Church by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Anglican Communion. Museum: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
  • Saint Jerome as Scholar (MET)
    • This painting of “Saint Jerome” by El Greco is one of five known paintings of Saint Jerome by El Greco. Jerome (347 – 420) was a priest, confessor, theologian, and historian. He was born in a village on the border of Dalmatia, a Roman province on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea, between Greece and Italy. He is best known for his translation of most of the Bible into Latin and for his commentaries on the Gospels. He is recognised as a Saint and Doctor of the Church by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Anglican Communion. His written contributions to the church were extensive. Museum: Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET
  • View of Toledo (Met)
    • “View of Toledo” by El Greco is one of only two surviving landscapes by El Greco and is among the most famous depictions of the sky in Western art. El Greco’s expressive handling of colour and form was unique in the history of art and in this painting, he takes liberties with the actual layout of buildings which are re-arranged for effect. The Council of Trent (1545 to 1563) had banned landscape painting, so this work is one of the first Spanish landscape painting of its time. The painting’s symbolism is related to the history and heritage of the city during the time this painting was created. Charles I’s royal court was in Toledo, and the town served as the imperial capital until 1561 after which the Spanish court was moved to Madrid. This painting was painted shortly after the royal capital, and the Spanish court left Toledo behind. This painting was also influenced by El Greco’s background in Byzantine art. Museum:  Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET
  • The Adoration of the Shepherds
    • “The Adoration of the Shepherds” by El Greco depicts a traditional subject which El Greco returned to during the last year of his life. El Greco made this painting to hang over his tomb in a church in Toledo. The elongation of the bodies characterises this masterpiece, as it did, all of the pictures of El Greco’s last years in Toledo, Spain. The infant Christ emits a light which plays off the faces of the witnesses who have gathered to pay homage to his birth. The contrasts between light and dark promote the sense of drama, as do the group of angels which hover over the scene in tribute to the infant Christ. Museum:  Prado Museum, Museo del Prado
  • Saint Martin and the Beggar
    • “Saint Martin and the Beggar” by El Greco depicts the best-known story on the life of the Christian Saint Martin of Tours, who when he was in the Roman cavalry used his military sword to cut his cloak in two, to give half to a beggar who was clad only in rags in the depth of winter. Saint Martin of Tours (336 – 397) was the third bishop of Tours after he had served in the Roman cavalry in Gaul and converted to Christianity at a young age. This smaller version by El Greco is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago; a larger version is in the collection of The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Museum: Art Institute of Chicago

El Greco

El Greco Facts

  • El Greco was a painter, sculptor, and architect.
  • El Greco was born in the Kingdom of Candia, current day Crete, which was then part of the Republic of Venice.
  • At the age of 22, El Greco was already a Byzantine Icon Master.
  • An official document named him as a “master” or “maestro” of the local painter’s guild on Crete.
  • Despite being Greek, El Greco was a devout Catholic.
  • Some art historians believe he converted from Greek Orthodoxy to become part of the Catholic Cretan minority.
  • The two major religions of the Kingdom of Candia were Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy.
  • El Greco moved to Venice around 1567, at the age of 26, to complete his training.
  • El Greco studied with Titian, in Venice, the most renowned painter of his day.
  • El Greco combined Byzantine traditions with Western style.
  • El Greco meaning “The Greek” was his nickname due to his Greek nationality.
  • In 1570 El Greco moved to Rome, and he was received at the Palazzo Farnese, which had become the centre of the artistic and intellectual life of the city.
  • Michelangelo and Raphael had just died when El Greco moved to Rome.
  • His stay in Rome wasn’t successful. He acquired more enemies than friends, with his Venetian Renaissance painting style compared to Roman and Tuscan painting.
  • In 1577 he moved to Toledo where he produced some of his best-known paintings and lived there until death.
  • While most of El Greco’s art was in the Mannerist style, he had a unique style.
  • El Greco dramatic and expressionistic style was met with puzzlement by his contemporaries, but El Greco found appreciation in the 20th century.
  • El Greco is today regarded as the predecessor of Expressionism and Cubism.
  • Famous for elongated figures.
  • Picasso claimed that El Greco was the only Cubist painter before him and that he drew his inspiration for inventing Cubism from El Greco.
  • El Greco’s signature, in Greek, may be seen in the corner of most of his paintings.
  • King Philip of Spain did not like the result of the first commission he gave to El Greco, so he offered no further commissions to El Greco. The exact reasons for the king’s dissatisfaction remain unclear. Lacking the favour of the king, El Greco stayed in Toledo, instead of Madrid, where he was more highly regarded.
  • Typically signed his paintings with his full birth name in Greek – “Domenikos Theotokopoulos”
  • El Greco influenced artists like Picasso, as well as writers like Rainer Maria Rilke and Nikos Kazantzakis.

El Greco Quotes

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“Art is everywhere you look for it.”

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“I paint because the spirits whisper madly inside my head.”

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“Can the darkness condemn the light?”

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“The language of art is celestial in origin and can only be understood by the chosen.”

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“You must study the Masters but guard the original style that beats within your soul and put to the sword those who would try to steal it.”

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“I hold the imitation of colour to be the greatest difficulty of art.”

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“It is only after years of struggle and deprivation that the young artist should touch colour – and then only in the company of his betters.”

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“Artists create out of a sense of desolation. The spirit of creation is an excruciating, intricate exploration from within the soul.”

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“I suffer for my art and despise the witless moneyed scoundrels who praise it.”

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“I was created by the all-powerful God to fill the universe with my masterpieces.’

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“Art is everywhere you look for it, hail the twinkling stars for they are God’s careless splatters.”

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A Tour of Artists

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“I paint because the spirits whisper madly inside my head.”
– El Greco

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Photo Credit: El Greco [Public domain]

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