El Greco in Toledo
El Greco, a Greek-born artist who adopted Toledo as his hometown, painted for the Spanish king in his capital, Toledo. Today many of El Greco’s masterpieces — which convey religious themes in a mystical way — can be seen here.
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Toledo’s main square is the inviting Plaza Zocodover. Tourists visit today for more than mazapán. Toledo was the 16th-century home of one of Europe’s greatest painters, El Greco.
Born in Greece, trained in Venice, Domenikos Theotokopoulos — his tongue-tied friends just nicknamed him “The Greek,” or “El Greco” — moved to Spain to find work as a painter. He found employment here in Toledo, where he spent the rest of his life, and developed his unique style of painting.
El Greco-philes will want to visit Toledo’s Santa Cruz Museum. Originally an orphanage and hospital, today its wards house 16th-century art, including a superb collection of El Greco paintings.
His work mixes influences from all three of his places of residence: icon-like faces from his Greek homeland, bold color and twisting poses from Italy, and the almost mystical spirituality from Catholic Spain.
El Greco painted supernatural visions — elongated saints…stretched between Earth and Heaven. He painted souls — not bodies. Faces flicker like candles. Thoroughly modern in its disregard of realism, his art feels contemporary even today.
This altarpiece, finished one year before El Greco’s death, is the culmination of his inimitable style. It combines all his signature elements to express an otherworldly event.
While on Earth the city of Toledo sleeps, a vision takes place overhead. An angel in a billowing robe spreads his wings and flies up, supporting Mary, the mother of Christ. She floats through warped space, to be serenaded by angels and wrapped in the radiant light of the Holy Spirit. Mary is charged from within by the ecstasy of her faith. No painter before or since has captured the mystery of the spiritual world like El Greco.
Nearby, the simple chapel of Santo Tomé holds El Greco’s most-loved painting. The Burial of the Count of Orgaz couples heaven and earth in a way only “The Greek” could.
Imagine…you’re at the burial of the good count right here in this chapel. He was so holy; two saints even came down from heaven to help out. The funeral is attended by Toledo's leading citizens. Each face is a detailed portrait. El Greco paints himself looking out at us…drawing us into the scene. The boy in the foreground — pointing to the two saints — is El Greco’s son.
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. A spiritual wind blows as colors change and shapes stretch. Jesus points to St. Peter, who controls the keys to the pearly gates. The painting’s subtitle: “Such is the reward for those who serve God and his saints.”
Our hotel, the Residencia La Almazara, while truly in the country — is just two miles out of Toledo. The summer residence of a 16th-century cardinal, it’s a lumbering old place with inviting public spaces, a sprawling garden and simple but comfortable rooms. Fond of the cardinal — and perhaps this view — El Greco hung out here for inspiration.