El Greco ‘ Greek Painter ‘

the entry of st lgnatius in paradise

El Greco (1541-1614)

Born in Crete, El Greco left his native island to travel first to Venice, where he studied with Titian, then to Rome, where he mingled with the foremost scholars in the city. But his name is inextricably linked with Toledo, then the intellectual and spiritual centre of Spain and the city where he settled in his late 30s. Under the patronage of the powerful Spanish Church, he produced an extraordinary and original series of religious works.

The tortured spiritual intensity of these pictures perfectly conveys the mood of the newly resurgent Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation. El Greco was celebrated during his own lifetime, but subsequent generations, finding his distorted forms and strident colours difficult to understand, labelled him mad. It was only in the 20th century that interest in him revived, and his reputation was restored.

portrait of el greco


A Greek Painter in Toledo

A native of Crete and a learned, religious man, El Greco studied in Italy before settling in Toledo. There he soon became the leading artist, in great demand by Spanish nobles and ecclesiastics alike.

Domenikos Theotokopoulos was born in or near Candia - present-day Heraklion - on the island of Crete in 1541. Despite a life spent in exile from his native country, he clung tenaciously to his Greek identity, and it is hardly surprising that the Spaniards who found his name hard to pronounce gave him the nickname 'El Greco', meaning 'the Greek'.

Little is known about El Greco's life in Crete, or his early training as an artist, but he obviously began painting in Candia and even achieved some fame there, since a Cretan document dated 1566 records him as a master painter, and refers to his attempt to sell a painting, possibly to finance his trip to Italy. Our knowledge of his career really begins in 1567, when he decided, in his mid-20s, to move to Venice. The decision was not an unusual one. Candia had been a Venetian possession for centuries, and many Greek artisans and painters had emigrated to the political capital in search of the patronage and wealth that they lacked at home.

The sophisticated and cosmopolitan atmosphere that greeted El Greco in Venice would have presented a tremendous contrast with provincial Crete. The city supported a vast seaborne empire to protect the important trade routes that brought her prosperity. She had a republican constitution, a relatively stable and contented population, and the wealth to commission lavish building projects and numerous works of art.

picture of island of crete

Greek beginnings:
Domenikos Theotokopoulos is thought to have been born in the province of Candia on the island of Crete, then a possession of the wealthy Venetian Republic. The artist was proud of his origin, and signed his paintings in Greek characters, often adding the word KRHC, meaning the Cretan.


It is not known whether El Greco received any commissions in Venice, but he was not content to pass his time in the endless manufacture of devotional images, as many of his compatriots were. He actively sought out the foremost painters of the city, and it seems that he even worked with the aging Titian for a while. The pictures painted during his Venetian years also point to El Greco's knowledge of works by other painters such as Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese, and Jacopo Bassano.

After two years in Venice, El Greco had his sights set on Rome. He arrived there in November 1570 and soon befriended the Croatian miniaturist Giulio Clovio, who wrote to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese: ‘A young Candiote has appeared in Rome, a pupil of Titian, who, so far as I can judge, is unique in painting, among other things he has painted a self-portrait that confounds all painters in Rome'. Sadly, the portrait that aroused such admiration has been lost. Clovio suggested that the Cardinal might like to offer El Greco a place in his palace. The request was granted, and the young painter found himself lodged in style in the Palazzo Farnese, enjoying the Cardinal's protection. At the palace, El Greco was well placed to meet the most eminent scholars of Rome. Fulvio Orsini, the Farnese librarian, became a friend and patron.

portrait of giulio clovio

Friend and benefactor:
This portrait of Giulio Clovio was painted soon after El Greco's arrival in Rome. A celebrated miniaturist, Clovio recommended the artist to his illustrious patron Cardinal Farnese.

titian self portrait

An aging master:
After his arrival in Venice in 1567, El Greco assiduously studied the techniques of the great Venetian artists. Titian was a major influence and seems to have employed the young Greek in his busy workshop.

He was an intellectual, humanist, and connoisseur, and his discussions with the artist and the introduction he gave him to his circle of friends had a profound effect. El Greco retained a lively interest in history and philosophy for the rest of his life, and the inventory of his library made at the time of his death shows him to have been astonishingly widely read in works of classical literature, and Christian and philosophical treatises.


El Greco was in Rome only six years after Michelangelo's death, but the great days of the city as an artistic center were already in decline, and the attitude of the Church towards artistic matters was starting to change. Pope Pius V was so disgusted with the nudity of the figures in Michelangelo's Last Judgement frescoes in the Sistine Chapel that he was contemplating having them covered with loincloths. Legend has it that El Greco was asked to undertake the task, but suggested instead that the Pope might like to have the frescoes completely painted over since he could provide a far better replacement. It was once thought that the outrage of his fellow artists on hearing this story was the reason that El Greco fled Rome, but colorful though the anecdote is, it is unlikely to be true. In the first place, El Greco had an enormous admiration for Michelangelo's work, even if he found it too worldly and lacking in spirituality for his own taste. Secondly, since El Greco never painted in fresco, he would not have been able to redecorate the chapel in any case.

picture of farnese palace

The Palazzo Farnese:
While in Rome, El Greco stayed at the Farnese Palace, a meeting place for visiting artists and intellectuals.

Venetian Contemporaries

El Greco was in his mid-20s when he arrived in Venice, which was rather older than the age at which an artist generally entered a workshop. But it appears that he did spend some time as a pupil of Titian, who was then an old man in his 80s. Other artists with whom he undoubtedly came into contact during his time in Venice were Tintoretto (who was working on his magnificent cycle of paintings for the Scuola di San Rocco), Paolo Veronese, and Jacopo Bassano. All of them, in their different ways, were to have a profound impact on El Greco's art, which was grounded in the Byzantine tradition.

allegory of love iv(1565), paolo veronese

Paolo Veronese (1528-88):
Originally from Verona, Veronese settled in Venice in 1553. Allegory of Love IV (1565), forms part of many elaborate decorative schemes. The use of acid colors and low viewpoint were also adopted by El Greco.

st mark rescuing a saracen during a storm(1562-66), jacopo tintoretto

Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-94):
After Titian's death, Tintoretto became the official painter of the Republic. The one of the dramatic sky and elongated figures in St Mark Rescuing a Saracen during a Storm (1562-66) are echoed by El Greco's later works.


It is more likely that it was El Greco's circle of friends in Rome, which included many influential Spanish clergymen, who persuaded him to go to Toledo, where their powerful connections could secure him important church commissions. At any rate, it was Diego de Castilla, Dean of Canons at Toledo Cathedral, whom El Greco met in Rome, and gave the artist his first commission when he arrived in Spain.

The date of El Greco's depature from Rome is also the subject of some debate. He was still there in 1572 when he joined the painters' guild of St Luke, but there are a number of years unaccounted for before the artist is recorded as working in Spain. It has been suggested that El Greco returned to Venice en route for Toledo, but this is unlikely because plague was raging in the lagoon in 1576 - hardly an inducement to travel there - and Titian also died in that year, removing one of the city's main attractions for El Greco.

It is possible that El Greco stayed for a few months in Madrid when he first arrived in Spain, but by the spring of 1577 he was living in Toledo, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. Whether or not he intended his stay to be permanent, he soon found himself a female companion, Doña Jeronimo de las Cuevas, although it is not known if he ever married her. By 1578 the couple had a son, Jorge Manuel, who was also to become a painter.

Until the 1500s Toledo had been the capital of Spain, and although Philip II had moved the center of government to Madrid in 1562, the city's active and prosperous life was not affected. The flourishing trade in silk, wool, and ceramics, which made it one of Europe's richest cities, went hand in hand with the city's importance as an intellectual and religious center. It was the headquarters of the Spanish Church and had many richly endowed churches and religious establishments to provide patronage for a painter like El Greco. For a while at least, before it surrendered to the conformity demanded by the Inquisition, it was also a center of free and learned debate on theological matters. El Greco sought out the company of intellectuals, as he had done in Rome, and his closest friends were preachers, poets, and scholars.

portrait of jorge manuel

Portrait of the artist's son:
Jorge Manuel was born in 1578 and became a painter and architect. He worked with his father and helped to complete many of his late works.


Soon after his arrival in Toledo, El Greco was at work on a large and important commission for the altarpiece for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. This ambitious undertaking set the tone for many future church commissions, and El Greco's growing fame meant that he was soon being asked to paint works for all the major religious institutions in Toledo.

While he was attaining success in his ecclesiastical commissions, El Greco was also trying to court royal patronage. While still in Rome he had learned of Philip II's desire to persuade the best artists in Europe to come and work on the decorations of his new monastery of El Escorial. El Greco's motive in painting The Allegory of the Holy League - sometimes called The Dream of Philip II - was to impress the King. It seems to have had the right effect, as he was asked to paint an altarpiece for the Escorial in 1580. However, his finished work, The Martyrdom of St Maurice, did not get the royal seal of approval El Greco had hoped for, and he never really gained the royal confidence he sought.

This is not to say that El Greco's artistic reputation was in any way diminished. He was still asked to paint the portraits of Spanish nobles and those in court circles. Meanwhile, his standing with the clergy was going from strength to strength, and commissions from them multiplied. There were decorative schemes for the Augustinian Colegio de Dona Maria de Aragon in Madrid (1596-1600), the Chapel of San José, Toledo (1597-99), the Hospital of La Caridad, Illescas (1603-5), the Hospital of San Juan Battista Extra Muros, Toledo (1607-13), and the Oballe Chapel of San Vincente, Toledo (1607-13), which included The Immaculate Conception.

picture of toledo

An adopted home:
It is not known when El Greco arrived in Spain, but by the spring of 1577, he was living in Toledo, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. This view of the city – the intellectual and spiritual center of Spain - appears in several of his works.

picture of el greco's house in toledo

El Greco's house:
El Greco lived in many houses in Toledo, but he stayed longest in the sumptuous rooms adjoining the main wing of the Palace of Villena. The house fell into disrepair after the artist's death, but has been rebuilt on the original site and is now the El Greco Museum.

portrait of fray hortensio felix de paravicino

The preacher-poet:
In Toledo, as in Rome, El Greco mixed with the leading scholars and writers of the day. One of his closest friends was Fray Hortensio Félix de Paravicino, a famous orator, who was an official preacher at the court of Philip II. An accomplished poet, Paravicino wrote several sonnets in praise of El Greco, including an epitaph for the artist's tomb.


El Greco's success led him to yearn for the pomp and circumstance he thought fitting for a man in his position. In 1585, the year before he was commissioned to paint The Burial of Count Orgaz (p.1330), he rented rooms adjoining the main wing of the palace of Villena that was far more grandiose than most artists would have been able to afford. He had a relatively small household, yet it occupied 24 rooms in the palace, most of which was unfurnished due to lack of funds. El Greco also insisted on spending what money he had on acquiring rare and beautiful objets d'art and on hiring musicians to play to him while he dined.

His contemporaries may have criticized a way of life that they considered ostentatious and pretentious, but it may be that El Greco was, through his attempts to maintain a grand style, trying to make a serious point about the status of the artist in society. After all, he had come from a long stay in Italy, where artists enjoyed considerable esteem, to Spain, where their status was little higher than that of an artisan or metalworker. If El Greco's fellow artists were happy to live as artisans, he conceived of himself as an artist-philosopher and was determined to live in an appropriate manner. His famous and frequent lawsuits against his patrons, in which he demanded more money than they were prepared to pay him, are another example of his proud temperament and determination to make his presence felt.

Unfortunately, it does not seem that El Greco was able to finance his life of luxury very easily. The inventory made in 1614 reveals that he had few remaining possessions when he died, and this bears out theories that towards the end of his life his business affairs deteriorated. In his last years, the painter became an invalid, and turned towards his own personal experiments in painting, caring rather less about pleasing his patrons. In any case, the city of Toledo itself was entering an economic decline in the early years of the 17th century, which meant that there was less money available for artistic patronage.

The Escorial

Work on the monastery of El Escorial - Philip II's gloomy retreat - was begun in the 1560s. It was intended both as a thanksgiving for a military victory and as a monument to the triumphant Catholic Church. The Spanish King invited the best artists in Europe to decorate the building. El Greco ranked among them, having succeeded in impressing Philip with his painting The Allegory of the Holy League. Unfortunately, the resulting commission - The Martyrdom of St Maurice - failed to arouse the same enthusiasm in the King.

picture of the escorial

Monumental splendor:
One of the largest and most spectacular religious establishments in the world, The Escorial is situated in the Guadarrama mountains, north west of Madrid. It houses a fine art collection and a library of priceless manuscripts and books.

portrait of philip ii
the martyrdom of st maurice, el escorial

A dissatisfied patron:
Philip II commissioned The Martyrdom of St Maurice to decorate an altar dedicated to St Maurice in the basilica of the Escorial, but the painting was never hung there. The King may have been unhappy that the bloody martyrdom was relegated to a small incident in the background, and commissioned another painting from Romulo Cincinnati, which was acceptably explicit.


When he died on 7 April 1614 after a long period of illness, El Greco's body was buried in the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in a vault in the chapel containing his altarpiece The Adoration of the Shepherds. But his body did not remain long in its carefully chosen resting place. Following Jorge Manuel's failure to complete works for the church in payment for the vault, El Greco's remains were transferred to the nearby monastery of San Torcuato. The monastery was later destroyed, giving an ignoble footnote to the life of one of Spain's most illustrious painters.

picture of el greco's crypt

El Greco's crypt:
El Greco was buried in a vault in the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, but his remains were removed after a quarrel over his son's failure to complete works promised in payment for the vault. Today the site of his burial is commemorated by a stone bearing the inscription 'El Greco's crypt'.


Spiritual Inspiration

El Greco absorbed influences from both Eastern and Western art to create the highly original style that was to serve as a vehicle for his religious vision.

El Greco enjoyed success and respect during his lifetime, but his artistic reputation gradually fell into decline after his death. His work was not seriously reassessed until the 20th century when some critics began to see him as an important precursor of modern art movements like Expressionism.

Part of the problem was that succeeding generations found his distorted forms and strident color schemes difficult to understand. Various theories were advanced to explain the idiosyncrasies of his style - some writers suggested that his elongated forms could be accounted for by an optical defect such as astigmatism and others claimed that he was mad.

But these reactions to El Greco's distinctive manner of painting ignore two important points. The first is that his painterly distortions were a matter of choice, not ineptitude. His portraits, for example, are never subject to the same contortions as his religious works. Secondly, El Greco's work must be seen in relation to the prevailing artistic styles of his time. He was an artist who drew upon several available sources of inspiration, and looked critically at the work of his contemporaries, and who read a great deal of artistic theory. His time in Italy meant that he absorbed the theories and practice of Mannerist art, well illustrated in the works of artists such as Bronzino and Pontormo, and the late paintings of Michelangelo. Elongated forms, extravagant and improbable gestures, self-conscious virtuosity, and cold colors were characteristics their pictures shared in common, and El Greco used them in his own work.


El Greco occupies a unique position as an artist placed between Eastern and Western traditions of painting. It is a shame that so little is known about his early training because there was a flourishing school of Byzantine artists working on Crete, whose pictures he would undoubtedly have been familiar with from childhood. There are certainly parallels between the stiff hieratic figures, shallow space, and arbitrary foreshortening of El Greco's paintings, and the holy images of Byzantine art. But El Greco's Byzantine heritage did not really make itself fully felt until much later in his life when he had arrived at his mature style in Spain. His earliest paintings, executed in Italy, show him to have been working very much in the manner of the Italian High Renaissance, creating crowded canvases full of dramatic incidents with a typically Venetian richness of color. At this stage in his artistic development, his use of perspective was relatively conventional, and his forms were fully rounded and three-dimensional. He had learned from Tintoretto the habit of composing his pictures from drawings of little models.

the purification of the temple, el greco

The Purification of the Temple:
This early attempt to paint in the manner of the High Renaissance dates from El Greco's Venetian years and shows the influence of Titian and Tintoretto.

the resurrection, el greco

The Resurrection:
As this panel rests on an altar in the church of Santo Domingo, St Ildefonsus (in the bottom left-hand corner) appears on the same level as the priest standing in front of the altar, and thus provides a stepping stone from the human world to the divine realms.

view of toledo, el greco

View of Toledo:
El Greco rearranged landscape and architecture in this schematic representation of Toledo. By giving the Cathedral and Alcazar particular prominence, he emphasized the city's importance as a centre of Christianity and monarchy at a time when fortunes were in decline.


The journey to Rome brought El Greco into contact with mannerisms. Although he never adopted the smooth shiny surfaces preferred by Mannerists painters, he was influenced by the way they often organized their pictures. Abandoning e Venetian approach to composition, where groups of figures are arranged in clusters horizontally along the canvas, he took up the Mannerist method of piling figures one above the other, focusing the spectators' eyes on the center of the painting, rather than on the horizon.

But it was in Spain that El Greco's style came to maturity. He drew upon his past experiences of Italian and Byzantine painting and transformed them into something quite new. He went further in his denial of the single perspectival viewpoint in his pictures, going against Italian Renaissance rules of perspective and recession into depth. In his Spanish works there are discrepancies in scale and distance that would have shocked his Italian contemporaries.

el greco's sculpture

El Greco's sculpture:
This relief of the Virgin Handling the Chasuble to St Ildefonsus – Toledo's patron saint - was once part of the altarpiece that contained the Espolio. El Greco designed surroundings for several of his altarpieces, but most of them have disappeared.

Much of El Greco's work must be seen in the context of the Spanish Counter-Reformation. The subject matter of his middle years is completely in keeping with the taste of the Catholic Church in the wake of the reforming Council of Trent. Subjects like the Purification of the Temple, the Martyrdom of Saints acts of Penitence and Charity, and the contemplation of death were all highly appropriate to a Church in the grips of reforming zeal.

It was El Greco's desire to paint the unseen spiritual world that led him to do away with conventions for representing the world of tangible reality. In many of his paintings, there is a sharp division of the canvas into two different zones, heaven and earth, and there is often an abrupt change of style between the two. There is little doubt which of the two worlds El Greco preferred: Guilio Clovio called on the artist one day in his studio in Rome, only to find him sitting in darkness with the curtains drawn against the spring day and complaining that the daylight disturbed his inner vision.

portrait of a nobleman with hand on breast, el greco

Portrait of a Nobleman with Hand on Breast:
This picture of an unknown nobleman is an especially striking example of El Greco's portraiture. The beautifully observed details show how the artist was able to paint in a relatively naturalistic manner when he thought it appropriate. Yet the stiff frontal presentation of the figure resembles the poses found in iconic images of saints, which El Greco would have known from childhood. Indeed, the fingers are placed in a gesture often seen in Byzantine paintings.


His desire to serve God through painting also led El Greco to modify the way in which he handled light, color, and form. The dazzling brightness of his colors was intended to be a reflection of God's brightness or divine light. The soaring movements of his compositions, which move the eye of the beholder upwards, were intended to mirror the way in which the soul is conveyed to heaven. This tendency to elongate his pictures became more extreme as El Greco grew older. By 1607, when he was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for San Vicente, Toledo, he asked that the altar should be one-fifth taller so that the painting 'would not be dwarfish, the worst possible thing, whatever the form'.

It was really only in his later years that El Greco's work moved away from the established Church towards his own personal brand of mysticism. He chose to paint fewer narrative religious scenes and concentrated instead on pictures of saints at their devotions, or scenes that directly conveyed the spiritual content of Christianity.


Images of Saints

Portraits of saints have a long tradition in Western art. In Byzantine paintings, saints are usually shown as stiff, two-dimensional images worthy of veneration. During the Renaissance, saints were humanized and brought down to earth, often being placed in terrestrial settings. El Greco's saints inhabit the earth, but are often shown communicating with heaven through prayer: his legacy can be seen in Velazquez's St John.

st john the evangelist on the island of patmos, diego velazquez

Diego Velazquez (15991660) St John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos:
In this early work by Velazquez, the Saint raises his eyes to heaven to receive inspiration from the Virgin.

st epiphanius painting

Artist unknown St Epiphanius:
This 12th-century Turkish painting is typical of the rather generalized and remote images of saints found in Byzantine art.


As the early 17th-century Church moved away from an emphasis on the transcendental, El Greco's insistence upon it, and the growing abstraction of his art, meant that his popularity waned. As a highly intellectual painter, the true significance of his pictures could only be grasped by the small minority of people who understood the mighty weight of scholarship and doctrines that lay behind them.

st peter in tears, el greco

St Peter in Tears:
The theme of St Peter weeping after his denial of Christ occurs frequently in the art of the Counter-Reformation, as it was thought to encourage the Catholic sacrament of Penance. El Greco shows the Saint in his blue and yellow robes, the keys to heaven dangling from his waist.


The Burial of Count Orgaz

In 1586 the parish church of Santo Tomé in Toledo commissioned El Greco to paint a commemorative picture of the burial of their benefactor Count Orgaz, who had died in 1323. The Count had donated money and land to the Augustinian order, helped with the reconstruction of Santo Tomé, and left the church an annual endowment. Legend has it that at the hour of his funeral, God performed a miracle to reward the Count for his generosity. At the moment when his body was to be lowered into the grave, St Stephen and St Augustine descended from heaven and placed it in the tomb with their own hands. A few years before the commission, the parish priest of Santo Tomé had won a battle with the Count's town of Orgaz, which had allowed the payments to the church to lapse. The painting was intended as a celebration of the victory.

El Greco chose to portray the funeral as a contemporary event. He depicted the figures in the dress of his own day and included many Toledan dignitaries among the participants. He probably hoped that this would emphasize the continuing relevance of charitable acts, which would reap their reward in heaven.

the burial of count orgaz, el greco
the burial of count orgaz(detail), el greco

The Spanish King:
Among the elect in heaven sits Philip II wearing not biblical robes, but 16th-century dress complete with a ruff. El Greco was not the first artist to depict the Spanish monarch in heaven: he also appears in Titian's Gloria.

the burial of count orgaz(detail), el greco

The Count's soul:
During the funeral service, the Count's soul leaves his body and is carried to heaven to be judged by Christ. The Virgin and St John intercede, while St Peter awaits Christ's decision before admitting the soul to Paradise.

the burial of count orgaz(detail), el greco

Jorge Manuel:
The young boy in black is probably El Greco's son Jorge Manuel. The handkerchief in his pocket bears the date 1578, the year of his birth. As Jorge points to the dead Count, he invites the spectator to contemplate the meaning of the scene.

the burial chapel of el greco

The burial chapel:
The Count had asked that his body be buried in an inconspicuous rear wall of the church, but in the late 16th century it was decided to glorify him by building a chapel around the grave. El Greco's picture, placed directly above the tomb, creates the illusion that the body is being lowered into its resting place.

the burial of count orgaz(detail), el greco

The Count in armor:
Although Count Orgaz died in 1323 he is shown in a 16th-century suit of armor, inlaid with gold, of a type worn by Spanish kings in their state portraits. This underlines the Count's nobility, while also stressing the relevance of his charitable acts to El Greco's own time.

the burial of count orgaz(detail), el greco

St Stephen:
St Stephen was the patron saint of the Augustinian monastery in Toledo, which benefited from the Count's gifts. His chasuble (vestment) is decorated with a detailed scene of his own martyrdom, showing the crowd stoned him to death.


The majority of El Greco's paintings are religious works, and the mystical intensity of his style is expressed with unrivaled energy and conviction of the religious fervor for which Spain was famous. His most celebrated works, El Espolio and The Burial of Count Orgaz are unmatched in the way they convey the awesomeness of a great spiritual event, but later paintings, such as The Immaculate Conception and The Adoration of the Shepherds, go even further in their sense of ecstasy and in the freedom of the figures from any earth-bound restrictions.

In addition to his work as a religious painter, El Greco was one of the greatest of all portraitists, his range extending from grand formal images such as the portrait of a cardinal to highly personal pictures such as the Lady in a Fur Wrap. He also made brilliantly original contributions to allegory and mythology with the two works Boy with a Candle and Laocoön, the latter one of his strangest and most powerful works.

lady in a fur wrap(c.1577-80), el greco

Lady in a Fur Wrap c. 1577-80:
This portrait has usually been accepted as a likeness of Jeronimo de las Cuevas, the mother of El Greco's son, but there is no firm evidence for this and the tradition has been questioned. What is not in doubt is the superb quality of the portrait, remarkable both for the intimacy of the characterization and the marvelous painting of the fur.

the crucifixion(c.1590-1600), el greco

The Crucifixion c.1590-1600:
This picture was probably painted for the Jesuit church of San Ildefonso in Madrid. With the crucified Christ are the Virgin, St John the Evangelist, Mary Magdalene (at the foot of the cross, on the right), and two angels. Mary Magdalene and the angels are shown catching or mopping up Christ's redemptive blood.

portrait of a cardinal(c.1600-01), el greco

Portrait of a Cardinal c.1600-01:
This portrait traditionally represents Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, who was in Toledo in 1600-01 as head of the Inquisition, but the identity has been questioned. The sitter is shown in the full-length seated pose that was popular for portraits of churchmen and has a formidable sense of physical presence.

laocoon(c.1610-14), el greco

Laocoon C.1610-14:
Laocoon was the Trojan priest who warned the people of Troy not to take the wooden horse of the Greeks into the city. He and his sons were crushed to death by two enormous serpents sent by Apollo, who was on the side of the Greeks. The figures on the right of the painting are Apollo and Diana. The traces of a third figure came to light during cleaning, and probably indicate El Greco changing the composition as he worked. This was El Greco's only mythological painting and the unusual choice of subject may have come about because there was a tradition that Toledo (which is seen here in the background playing the part of Troy) had been founded by two descendants of the Trojans. In Rome, El Greco would have seen the famous antique sculpture of Laocoon discovered in 1506, and although his painting is completely different in style, it has something of the dramatic tension of the marble group.


Spain's Counter-Reformation

El Greco has been described as the master painter of the Counter-Reformation which was nowhere more militant and fervent than in the artist's adopted homeland of pain.

The Catholic Church, with the Pope at its head, emerged from the Middle Ages as the sole religious authority in western and central Europe. Despite serious shortcomings and widespread corruption, the Church had survived and surmounted every crisis, including the scandalous Great Schism, when the European states lined up behind rival popes as they vied with each other for the souls of the faithful. Then, in 1517, the Augustinian monk Martin Luther challenged the much-abused system of indulgences, in which people were induced to pay enormous fees in return for a papal certificate guaranteeing them a shorter term in Purgatory.

Luther's initial complaint was ineptly handled by the worldly Renaissance popes and quickly developed into a broad program for a Church 'reformed in both doctrine and ritual. This Protestant Reformation made very rapid headway in Europe north of the Alps, and there were notable defectors to the new faith even in Italy. By about 1540, a complete Protestant victory must have seemed within the realms of possibility.

picture of san juan de los reyes monastery in toledo

Chains of the Moors:
San Juan de Los Reyes monastery in Toledo was founded by the Catholic monarchs. As a symbol of their liberation of Spain from Muslim power, chains worn by once imprisoned Christians were hung on its façade.


The subsequent Catholic revival, variously called the Counter-Reformation or Catholic Reformation, gradually stemmed the Protestant tide in most places, and by the 17th century had even taken the offensive. It drew on reserves of religious fervor and was led by a series of popes whose ability and dedication changed the previously tarnished image of the papacy.

The doctrines of the Church were refined and redefined at the Council of Trent, which met intermittently between 1545 and 1563. This general council, which helped towards restoring the authority of Rome, established the Pope as 'the one and only head of the Church'. Protestantism and Catholicism were firmly defined and demarcated and the 'Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist was reaffirmed. Gross abuses were tackled and the setting up of a seminary (a theological college) in every diocese contributed to a new emphasis on training and dedication.

In this respect, the outstanding new organization - the one that provided the shock troops of the Counter-Reformation' - was the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits. This society, founded by a remarkable Spaniard named Ignatius de Loyola, brought a new spiritual fervor to Spain's religious fanaticism.

Spanish religious enthusiasm had hardly slackened for centuries. Spain was on the front line of Christendom throughout the Middle Ages, when the peninsula was divided between Christian and Muslim Moorish states. The long Spanish 'crusade' reached its climax in 1492, when Granada, the last Moorish stronghold was captured – not very long after the kingdom of Spain had itself been effectively created by the union of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, known as the 'Catholic Kings'.

Struggle only hardened Spanish intolerance of any 'alien' and unorthodox presence. In 1492 the Jews were expelled from the kingdom, but Marranos and Moriscos (converted Jews and Muslims) were also felt to be a potential threat, and were regarded as suspect orthodoxy - not surprisingly since many of them had converted under compulsion. The Inquisition, the most powerful weapon of the Roman Church, worked closely with the state, and was particularly active in Spain. Rightly or wrongly, the Spanish Inquisition has become a byword for cruel fanaticism, and the first Grand Inquisitor, Tomás de Torquemada, is remembered as the most fiendish of persecutors. Even when allowance is made for the fact that torture was widely used in Europe during legal proceedings, the horrors of the Inquisition and the number of Torquemada's victims - a number revised downwards by modern scholars, but still totalling about 2,000 - continue to appal today.

the entry of st lgnatius in paradise

St Ignatius in Paradise:
This detail from the ceiling fresco by Andrea Pozzo shows St Ignatius of Loyola being borne up to Paradise by a host of angels and putti. St Ignatius founded the Jesuit Order in 1540 and this fresco is in the church dedicated to him, in Rome.

st francis xavier left lisbon for the east

Missions to the East:
In 1541, St Francis Xavier left Lisbon for the East. He reached the Portuguese colony of Goa, in India, where he began his overseas missionary work.

a japanese view of the jesuits, the satirical japanese print

A Japanese view of the Jesuits:
The Jesuit missionaries reached India, Africa, and Japan. Their European costumes provoked much interest as shown in this satirical Japanese print.

Spain's messianic zeal was strengthened in the 16th century by her international position. In Mexico, Hernán Cortés carved out a great Spanish empire, destroying the Aztecs and their bloodstained altars, and a few years later Francisco Pizarro performed similar feats against the Incas and their religion. Again the Spaniards were able to see themselves as crusaders, conquering but also bringing millions of Indians to Christ. Self-interest refuelled religious fervour in the New World and also in the Old. Spain became the first power in Europe, and under Philip II (1556-98) made a supreme effort to master English, French and Dutch heretics while also driving back the infidel Turks in the Mediterranean.

The strength of the Spanish crusading tradition explains a good deal about St Ignatius Loyola (c.1491-1556). He was born of a noble family in the Basque Country and followed a military career until his leg was shattered during a siege. Convalescing, he read the lives of the Saints, whom he visualized as soldiers in the war against evil. After years of pilgrimage, meditation, and study, he and a group of like-minded individuals banded together, offered their services and obedience directly to the Pope, and in 1540 won official recognition as the Society of Jesus, with Loyola as the society's first general – a significantly military title.

the meeting of st teresa of avila with the poet and mystic, st john

The meeting of two mystics:
This engraving depicts the meeting of St Teresa of Avila with the poet and mystic, St John of the Cross, who helped St Teresa in her reform work. St John relates his mystical experiences in his poems.


The Jesuits soon became an international order famous for constructing an impressive, rigorous educational system, and also for the influence they wielded as confessors to kings and as diplomats and ministers - an influence that often made them unpopular even with fellow Catholics. They were also notable as missionaries, risking their lives to work in heretical England, like the Englishman St Edmund Campion, or traveling thousands of miles throughout the East, like Loyola's fellow Spaniard, St Francis Xavier.

Other great Spanish contemporaries of St Ignatius Loyola included St John of God (14951550), founder of the Brother Hospitallers, who care for the sick, and St John of Avila (1500-69), the “Apostle of Andalusia'. An even more outstanding figure in the next generation was the redoubtable, tireless St Teresa of Avila (1515-82). She broke away from the Carmelites, who no longer followed the rigorous 'primitive' rule of the order, and founded the Discalced Carmelites (discalced, literally 'unshod', meant that the nuns wore only sandals in all weathers). Closely associated with her was her disciple, the famous poet St John of the Cross (1542-91), who founded the Discalced Carmelite order of friars.

St Ignatius Loyola and St Teresa managed to combine wide-ranging practical activity with an intense spiritual life (both wrote at length about this for the instruction of others). However, in Spain, a too introspective spirituality became increasingly suspect: authors such as the Dominican Luis de Granada (1504-88), who stressed the inner life and dismissed outward ceremony as unimportant, were likely to end up on the Index of forbidden books or - unless, like Luis, they were wise enough to make a career outside Spain - in front of the Inquisition. This was the fate of several 'spiritual reformers, including the great poet Luis de Leon (1527-91), and even Bartolomé Carranza, who was Archbishop of Toledo before El Greco's arrival in the city.

picture of st teresa sculptor, bernini

The Vision of St Teresa:
St Teresa claimed that she had a vision in which an angel pierced her heart with a spear of gold, at which point she felt total union with God. It is this moment that the sculptor, Bernini, depicts.

picture of teresa's writing notbook

Teresa's writings:
St Teresa's many writings give an insight into the visionary intensity of her faith and describe how the soul can be united with God. Her works include many letters, a number of treatises, and an autobiography.

allegory of the holy league, el greco

Allegory of the Holy League:
This painting by El Greco commemorates the victory of the Holy League over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto. Heaven and earth adore the name of Jesus. Hell is shown as the open jaws to the right.

It has been convincingly argued (from what is known of El Greco's circle of friends) that the painter himself was strongly influenced by the spiritual reformers' ideas. If so, it was probably fortunate for him that paint is less explicit than prose. As the grip of orthodoxy became even tighter, Spanish fervor was increasingly directed towards outward observances and action. In the long run, this did not destroy, but stultified religious feelings and, in the 17th century, the Spanish religious impulse, like the Spanish state, gradually lost its vitality.

portrait of pope pius v

Pope Pius V:
Pius V was responsible for the crusade against the Turkish threat. Under his control, the Holy Christian League formed with Spain, Venice, and the Papacy to establish control once more of the central Mediterranean.

the battle of lepanto(1571)

The Battle of Lepanto:
On 7 October 1571, the Battle of Lepanto was fought between the Holy Christian League and Turkish forces. The Christians won an overwhelming victory, but both sides suffered enormous casualties.

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