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El Greco and Mannerism


El Greco, fusing influences from Greece, Venice, and Holy Toledo painted supernatural visions, faces that flicker like candles, and otherworldly altarpieces with a disregard for realism that feels modern even today. While hard to put El Greco in a box, he’s part of the Mannerist style that followed the Renaissance.

Complete Video Script

[91, El Greco, 1541–1614] The artistic influences from Spain's vast empire came together in Toledo with its greatest and last Renaissance painter. His name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, though his tongue-tied friends just called him "The Greek," or "El Greco."

[92] Artistically, he's hard to classify. El Greco's work reflects his strong faith and his much-traveled life. It's a synthesis of three cultures: the icon-like faces of his Greek Orthodox homeland; the bold color and twisting poses from his schooling in Venice; and the mystical Catholicism of Spain where he eventually settled…in the city of Toledo, then Spain's capital. It's there that El Greco forged his unique style.

[CRF 94 OC] Working at the end of the Renaissance, the art of El Greco overlapped with the next artistic style, Mannerism. Imagine being an artist coming after Leonardo and Rafael. How to improve on their brilliance? Well, you’d make your art as a reaction to their perfection.

[CRF 95] Mannerism is a melo-dramatic departure from the calm realism so cherished by Renaissance sensibilities. It featured elongated bodies, twisting poses, and smooth brushwork. Parmigiano — for example, with his stretched-out Madonna and slippery baby — is famed for this. Even Michelangelo’s very last statue — the unfinished Pieta Rondanini in Milan has this stretched out aesthetic.

[CRF 98, Burial of Count Orgaz] And this altarpiece is the culmination of El Greco’s style. It couples Heaven and Earth in a way only El Greco could. Imagine…you’re at the burial of the good count right here in this chapel. Two saints even came down from Heaven to help out. The funeral is attended by Toledo's leading citizens. Each face is a detailed and realistic portrait of the day.

[CRF 99] The count’s soul — symbolized by a ghost-like baby — rises up through the mystical birth canal to be reborn in Heaven, where he's greeted by Jesus, Mary, and all the saints. And Jesus points to St. Peter, who controls the keys to the pearly gates.

[95] No painter captured the mystery of the spiritual world quite like El Greco. He fused innovative techniques with Spanish religiosity to cap the Renaissance of Golden Age Spain.