El Greco’s Best

What’s this picture about?


 The Burial of the Count of Orgaz by El Greco, in the Church of Santo Tomé, Toledo, Spain (460 X 360 cm)

It illustrates a legend.  The Count of Orgaz was a saintly nobleman who founded convents and churches in Toledo. A miracle happened at his funeral. Two saints appeared and placed the Count’s body in his sepulchre while a voice from heaven said: “Such a prize is awarded to one who serves God and his saints.”

Two hundred years later (c.1584) the parish priest of the church where the Count was buried asked El Greco to paint a picture of the miracle.

El Greco put everything he had into this picture. Heaven is all imagined and colorful—like the work of the great Italians he had known.  Earth is realistic, sober, like Castile.
An angel in the middle of the picture is taking the Count’s soul, looking like a baby, up to heaven.  Big, naked John the Baptist and the whole community of saints seem to be asking Jesus to  accept it.

The two saints lifting the Count are Stephen on the left and Augustine on the right. A little painting on Stephen’s chasuble shows him being stoned—he was the first martyr:


The men in black are portraits of many of the most important townsmen of Toledo.  Perhaps El Greco collected a fee from each of them.


In any case the parish priest paid him 1200 ducats for the painting, which was good money.
That’s him with the golden stole on the far right.

El Greco included a portrait of himself:


The boy at the bottom of the picture is his son Jorge Manuel:


 He was born the year El Greco came to Toledo.  By the time he was this big his dad was getting commissions left and right and had moved into a big house.  They lived in style—Venetian style. Fine furnishings, an orchestra at dinner, important guests, learned conversation. No one knows whether the boy’s mother lived with them or if El Greco ever married her. Jorge Manuel became a painter like his dad and a good architect.



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22 Responses to El Greco’s Best

  1. Pingback: Before El Greco Was El Greco « The Best Artists

  2. wrjones says:

    Excellent story. I wonder when the most recent painting of this scope for a church was painted.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Bill. I’ve seen a few big paintings on new church walls. Most are in the simplified style of recent taste and can’t be looked at long. No one seems to want much imagination there anymore, only symbols. Decoration is done with colored glass and a twist of concrete. You should see the inside of the old Spanish cathedrals. Hundreds of craftsmen, and their children, and their children’s children, worked there their whole lives on railings and choirs and altar pieces and tombs and stained glass and mouldings and other decoration.

  3. Ken Januski says:

    The title says it all: What’s this picture about?

    My own artistic tendencies are more formal, for instance how do the colors work together, or the design, etc. That’s probably somewhat true of art of the last 100 years in general.

    But then you look at something like this painting and you’re at a loss. It is striking visually, very striking even. But what in the world could it have been to contemporary viewers? What did they see when they looked at it.

    Now we know! Or at least have a much better idea. Another wonderful story and explanation of a painting Swallows.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: Thanks again. I suppose at first everyone looked at the portraits down below and compared them with the men they knew. Everyone likes to see a portrait. And then they will have admired the realism of that transparent surplice, as Rich and I do. Most people don’t think of examining the colors of a painting, or the design, do they? Actually, they only look for information. People then as now simply ask what the picture is “about” and they view it as illustration and look for data. In those times there were very few pictures of anything—it all had to be imagined; and many will have come to “watch” the painting the way we see a video, to learn what actually happened when the saints came down at the Count’s funeral. And of course to see what heaven is like, and an angel, and all the rest. The painter was their reporter.

  4. Rich says:

    I just was wondering how it feels after applying the last brushstroke on such a canvas.
    Lots of paintings within this painting, adorable.
    Found myself lingering in the lower part still more than in the heavens. Only those textiles and textures alone are worth dwelling upon. Most striking I find that priest’s white half transparent overdress. Guess that’s a painting challenge, and most successfully rendered here.

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: I have admired that transparent surplice too. And like you I have spent more time studying the lower part of the picture. Those portraits are so good—Greco was always good at that. The best thing he did in Italy was a portrait of the friend who gave him the Spanish contacts. I might do the next post on his portraits. He was good at copying things, such as that suit of armor the dead Count is wearing and the bird wings of the angel that is flying his soul up to heaven. Also the embroidery of those chasubles and stoles. But in time he opted for imaginary work, where he could make everything up. Perhaps people in his time liked to see his heaven, to help them imagine it.

  5. cantueso says:

    This is a great story especially since (for once) the text is not one solid block (which here is sometimes called un ladrillo : a brick).

    Also, I see that the large fragments make Greco look more acceptable. I would have expected otherwise.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Cantueso. I can never decide how long to make these posts. But I’ll try breaking up the block of text so it isn’t a brick. I don’t know what you mean by “acceptable”.

  6. Madame Monet says:

    I enjoyed reading your post (even if I don’t have any intelligent comments I can make about it)!

    Madame Monet

  7. Rich says:

    I have a book on El Greco here, Swallows. One page shows a detail of the Burial of the Count. It shows the count with his suit of armor in detail. And what just looks blurred on the picture here on the web, shows a wonderful reflection!

    Stephan on the left is mirrored in the metallic armor. On the breast plate at the left. Just where the heart beats! Having a close look, I find a marvellous rendition of that mirrored figure. Also the black clothed nobleman’s hand at the back is mirrored.
    Just looks like a blessing hand above reflected Stephan’s head. All that can’t be seen here. It’s simply marvellous.

    Wouldn’t have looked so closely and wouldn’t have discovered that without consulting “The Best Artists”.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Rich. I’ll have to look for those details on a better photo of the Burial than I have here. Or go to Toledo and look for them on the original. Lately there are such crowds in the Santo Tomé that it’s hard to get close, though.

  8. Robert.D says:

    Great art blog can you receive the new postings by mail?
    Indeed the wonderfull transparant Rochette/Surplice of the cleric at the right is wonderfull done .
    I wonder of wich transparant textile l it was made in real life ?
    Who knows?
    kind regards

    • 100swallows says:

      Robert.D: Thanks. I think “followers” receive the latest postings and I will check to see if I have enabled the widget (is it a widget?). Yes, that surplice is spectacularly well painted. I have no idea what cloth or muslin it might be. Through it one sees the cleric’s hefty figure so well.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Como saber si esta pintura tiene balor yo tengo una parese buena o si es buena

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  14. Ron says:

    Great painting !

    Although a noble choir of spirits all around,
    The soul hardly knows the new life above
    But already like the sacred crowd.
    She leaves the earth like a dove
    And in the new etheric ground
    the power of first youth is found…

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