How to Understand El Greco’s “The Burial of Count Orgaz”

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

With its somber tone, wildly inventive sense of perspective, and fantastical view of the heavens, “The Burial of Count Orgaz” by Mannerist painter Domenicos Theotokopoulos a.k.a. El Greco offers an enduring depiction of death and mourning.Divided into scenes of heaven and earth, this colossal vertical painting grants viewers a peek into the funeral of Count Don Gonzalo Ruíz of Orgaz. A beloved local hero in El Greco’s adopted hometown of Toledo, Spain. Ruíz was renowned as a pious man, philanthropist, and knight who bequeathed a large sum of money to Toledo’s Santo Tomé church (Christiansen 1). His funeral in 1312 was well-attended by high-ranking noblemen, scholars, and poets. It was even rumored that Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine assisted with the burial. In El Greco’s portrayal, we see scores of aristocrats and clergy members huddled around Count Orgaz’s dead body as Jesus and the Virgin Mary welcome his soul into the kingdom of heaven (Puchko 1).

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Image: El Greco “The Burial of Count Orgaz” (1588). Source: Pixabay. 

Interestingly, “The Burial of Count Orgaz” is quite similar to Titian’s “Assumption of the Virgin” in composition and theme. This is understandable as El Greco studied under Titian when he lived in Venice as a young man. Both works feature a vertically-oriented canvas with a rounded top, simultaneous views of paradise and earth, as well as the apotheosis of the soul. While Renaissance artists such as Titian extolled the virtues of reason and recreated the idealized forms of the Greeks and Romans, El Greco was more interested in the compositional flatness and dramatic colors of Byzantine art, which was a very popular on his home island of Crete. By combining the narrative power of Renaissance painting with the expressive distortion of Byzantine art, El Greco was able to create this arresting image and timeless tribute.

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Image: Titian “The Assumption of the Virgin” (1516-8). Source: Pixabay. 

References

Christiansen, Keith. “El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) (1541–1614).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. October 2004. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/grec/hd_grec.htm>

 
Puchko, Kristy. “15 Things You Might Not Know About El Greco’s The Burial of Count Orgaz.Mental Floss. 5 October 2015. 17 May 2017. <http://mentalfloss.com/article/69050/15-things-you-might-not-know-about-el-grecos-burial-count-orgaz>

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