"I paint because the spirits whisper madly inside my head."
Santo Tome Church
The Burial of the Count of Orgaz
The Burial of the Count of Orgaz
The Burial of the Count of Orgaz
El Greco's The Burial of the Count Orgaz is universally considered his greatest masterpiece. Some even claim that this is the most beautifully crafted religious painting of all time.
Ever since El Greco completed the painting in the late 1500s, people have been flocking to the Santo Tome church in Toledo, Spain, where the impressive 16 by 10-foot image lives.
When the Count of Orgaz was alive, he donated a large sum of money to the Santo Tome church. After his death however, the officials in the town ignored his request to bequeath the money -for over 200 years.
Then came along Father Andres Nuñez, a humble priest at the Santo Tome who filed a lawsuit in 1569 and won back payments of the Count's original endowment.
The priest decided to use this money to decorate the church in honor of the Count and on March 15, 1586, he chose El Greco as the man for the job.
The theme of this painting is an historical-mystical series of events surrounding the death of local hero Count Orgaz, who died in his native Toledo in the early 1300s. The Count was said to be a pious man, a philanthropist, and a knight.
After the Count died in 1312, he was interred by the Cardinal and a host of clerics.
The story goes that during this ceremony, the heavens erupted spontaneously and friends and mourners witnessed a sky filled with images of Jesus, the Virgin, St. John, and several other saints and angels.
Legend explains that Saint Augustine and Saint Stephen appeared to reward the Count for his generosity to the church by burying him with their own hands and dazzling all those present.
Being a pious Toledan himself, El Greco chose to recapture this remarkable legend, painting both the mortals and immortals in attendance at Count Orgaz's funeral.
By way of thanks for this commission, El Greco painted Nuñez into this masterpiece (located in the far right of the image). Furthermore, as a tribute to the aristocracy of Toledo, El Greco honored various prominent Toledan social figures by immortalizing them in the painting.
El Greco even allegedly painted himself, as the figure looking straight out toward the viewer next to Saint Stephen.
In addition to immortalizing Santo Tome's priest and several prominent men of Toledo, El Greco also honored his own son in The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. The young boy looking directly at viewers from the bottom left hand corner of the painting is Jorge Manuel, El Greco's beloved illegitimate son.
Inscribed on the handkerchief in his pocket are both El Greco's Greek signature and the date of his son's birth 1578.
According to local legend, the funeral of the Count of Orgaz had some unexpected guests: namely, Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine, who appeared suddenly and miraculously to help lower the count's body into his tomb. The honour of having saints attend his funeral was in recognition of the count's pious life as well as his extreme generosity Toledo's religious institutions. In any event, the count had stipulated in his will that a yearly donation be collected from the citizens of Orgaz, a small town outside Toledo in his seigniorial possession, and be given to the parish church of Santo Tome in Toledo. The count was a parishioner of that church and had his private chapel there. However in 1562 the citizens of the town decided to stop making the payment, hoping the bequest would be forgotten. They could not have been more mistaken. The parish priest of Santo Tome, Andrez Nunez de Madrid, immediately instigated legal proceedings against the town and in 1569 the royal chancellery in Valladolid ruled in the priest's favour.
To celebrate this legal victory, as well as to immortalize the Count's generosity, Nunez renovated the count's chapel and commissioned El Greco to paint an exceptionally large altarpiece for it. The contract that El Greco signed on 18 March 1586 included among its clauses a description of the subject: "The artist agrees to paint the scene which depicts the parish priest and other clerics reciting the office for the burial of Don Gonzalo de Ruiz, Count of Orgaz, when Saint Augustine and Saint Stephen descended from heaven to bury the body of this gentleman, one holding the head, the other the feet, and placing him in the sepulchre. Around the scene should be portrayed many observers and, above all this, there is to be an open sky showing heaven in glory."
El Greco followed these specifications very closely. He divided the painting into two equal parts: the world of mortals in the lower half and the celestial vision above. He set the funeral scene at night, as was increasingly fashionable for funerals of the nobility in 16th-century Spain. Mortuary torches have been lit and a solemn gathering of men has formed around the miracle. One can almost hear the whispering between a Franciscan friar and an Augustinian friar on the left. Saints Stephen and Augustine, young and old, clean-shaven and bearded, are dressed in richly embroidered liturgical vestments. (A the bottom of Stephen's vestment is a scene portraying his death as a martyr by stoning - a deliberate reminder of the importance of martyrdom.) They solemnly hold the count's body, clad in shining armour, the textures of their fabrics contrasting evocatively with the metallic polish of the steel. Seen close up, El Greco's brushwork is spirited and descriptive - Saint Stephen's reflection can be seen in the armour.
In addition, El Greco sets the scene in Toledo of the 1580s: the black garments, white ruffs and goatee beards belong to the fashionable attire of late 16th-century Spain and not the 14th century in which Orgaz died. Each individual appears to be a real portrait, and some of the figures are members of the military Order of Santiago, identifiable by the red crosses on their chests. Although their identities are largely uncertain, the priest on the right holding a book and reciting the funeral rites must be Nunez de Madrid. The man with a white beard, behind Saint Augustine, is Antonio de Covarrubias, a scholar fluent in Greek and a close friend of El Greco, who would also paint his portrait years later. El Greco may be identified as the figure looking directly at us, positioned above Saint Stephen's head. And the young boy looking out at us and pointing to Orgaz's body is El Greco's son, Jorge Manuel. He is there not only to lead us into the picture but to emphasize El Greco's role as the creator of the composition.
NOTE: El Greco's portraits of the most eminent figures in Toledan society makes The Burial of Count Orgaz one of the greatest portrait paintings of the late 16th century. It was also a means of emphasizing the continuing relevance of devout behaviour as well as satisfying the vanity of the artist's colleagues and peers.
As mentioned above, El Greco first trained as a painter of icons, a form of Byzantine art favoured by the Eastern Orthodox Church. Rather than representing natural phenomena as perceived by the senses, icons are designed to give a glimpse into the transcendental world of the divine. Figures are typically two-dimensional, elongated and uniform in size and proportion. One of El Greco's earliest signed icons is the Dormition of the Virgin - discovered in 1982 in a monastery on the Greek island of Syros - which shows the mother of Christ 'asleep' surrounded by the apostles. Christ has miraculously appeared and takes her soul in the form of a swaddled baby in his hands. Above, the heavens have opened, the Holy Spirit appears and the Virgin sits enthroned as she is assumed into heaven.
The visual links between this icon and The Burial of the Count of Orgaz are intriguing. It is as if El Greco were consciously referring back to his earlier work but inserting a newly acquired skill: that of being able to paint the natural world realistically. On the one hand, we are drawn into the composition by the realism of the black-clad men gathered around the count; yet, on the other, we are witnessing both a miracle and a celestial vision. In order to depict the men, El Greco draws on the examples of Titian and Tintoretto whose works - like the latter's Assumption of the Virgin (1516-18) - he had studied while in Venice. But to capture the abstract visual world of paradise, El Greco has resorted to his training as an icon painter. The medley of elongated figures in heaven, dressed in brightly coloured drapery as if lit by neon lights, are not so removed from the figures that appear in his icon. El Greco also introduces an element of hierarchy, favoured by the Orthodox Church: Christ sits at the top, surrounded by the saints in heaven; Saint Peter with the keys and the rest of the saints sit behind in tiers, as though at the theatre. But the most moving detail is just visible through a gap in the clouds - it is a small translucent figure, which the Virgin and Saint John plead to have admitted into heaven. That figure signifies the Count of Orgaz's immaterial and immortal soul.
Other important influences on El Greco's handling of the composition are also detectable. The relatively uniform arrangement of figures in the lower half is reminiscent of Gothic art, such as the Sienese School of painting of the 14th century. However, the simple but easily understood hand gestures suggest the influence of the Italian High Renaissance (1490-1530). In the upper half of the picture, the slightly distorted ghostly figures evoke the works of Tintoretto at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, as also do the broken highlights on the drapery. The mainly 'acid colours' recall the colour schemes of Jacopo Bassano. In all, a masterpiece of Spanish painting as well as a magisterial illustration of Christian faith. Compare also the Mannerist forms of Parmigianino in works like: Madonna With the Long Neck (1535, Uffizi, Florence).
Interpretation of Other Paintings by El Greco
The Disrobing of Christ (1577)
View of Toledo (1595-1600)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Portrait of a Cardinal (1600)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Portrait of Felix Hortensio Paravicino (1605)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple (1609)
Church of San Gines, Madrid.
We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from "Heavenly Visitors: The Burial of the Count of Orgaz" by Xavier Bray.