“My name is Doménikos Theotokópoulos, but everybody calls me El Greco.”
You know you have a cool nickname when you’re still referred to it 500 years after your death. El Greco, was in fact born in Greece, on the island of Crete. From there he spent time in Venice and Rome on the heels of the Italian Renaissance developing his own painting style (more on that later). By the time he arrived in Toledo, in 1576, the seat of royal power had already moved to Madrid. But, Toledo still had centralized church power, so he spent the last 3 decades of his life in town painting church commissions and local noblemen.
Learning to appreciate art is a lot like learning to appreciate wine. From a macro view, the whole scene seems way too daunting. But, if you can make sense of a single grape varietal in a single region, you have something to build on. Spanish wine, in general, is too broad of a subject. Dig a little deeper to tempranillo from Rioja, for example. It’s a fine place to start. That region produces lots of approachable wine. Drink enough of it and you’ll come to identify the medium body, earthy old world style with hints of dark fruit, tobacco and vanilla. A Spanish government agency called the D.O.C. puts rules in place to make certain that wines in Rioja fit a similar, consistent profile.
Renaissance painting had rules too. They weren’t decreed by a government per se, but there were accepted norms. Within the confines of those norms El Greco learned how to express himself in a very recognizable way. Brush up on El Greco and we promise you will be able to pick his paintings out of any art lineup hanging on any wall anywhere. Fancy collector types think of him as an essential Renaissance artist, so his works are hanging around the world. We were once at an art museum in Omaha, Nebraska and an El Greco jumped off the wall at us from two rooms away.
Toledo is the perfect place to become acquainted with El Greco. Start at Santo Tomé Church. It’s a church that happens to have one of El Greco’s masterpieces in situ. For €3, you can drop by Santo Tomé and view “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.” This piece has some hallmarks of Renaissance art: naturalism, depth, use of light and recognizable contemporary life mashed with classic biblical themes.
In this painting celestial figures await the Count of Orgaz inevitable ascension to heaven. Below, in the earthly realm, we see the count’s body being lowered into a grave by Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine – a miraculous story from 1323 that became Toledo lore. The observers of the burial are real, recognizable citizens of 16th century Toledo. So, the first visitors to the painting could enjoy it like The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover. Hey, there’s Marilyn Monroe. There’s Albert Einstein. And, there’s El Greco himself, looking back at the viewer.
With an El Greco masterpiece under your belt, seek out the El Greco Museum. Here you can walk the grounds where El Greco allegedly lived and worked. Here the signature El Greco style is showcased on many portraits: the subtly elongated faces and hands, shadowing of clothing and flashes of light against dark backgrounds. El Greco fell out of favor with the church over a dispute in compensation, so he spent his final years doing portraits to pay the bills. These became his bread and butter.
Like wine, art is difficult to quantify with words. Now that you’ve experienced El Greco up close in his adopted hometown, we guarantee you’ll be able to recognize El Greco wherever you go. Even if you can’t quite put your finger on what makes a glass of wine a Rioja, you just know it to be true. Similarly you won’t forget what an El Greco looks like.