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date: 24 February 2024

Greco, El [Theotokopoulos, Domenikos [Dominico ; Dominikos ; Menegos ]] free

(b Candia [now Herakleion], Crete, c. 1541; d Toledo, April 7, 1614).

Greco, El [Theotokopoulos, Domenikos [Dominico ; Dominikos ; Menegos ]] free

(b Candia [now Herakleion], Crete, c. 1541; d Toledo, April 7, 1614).
  • Fernando Marías

Updated in this version

updated and revised, 28 May 2015; updated bibliography, 26 May 2010

Greek painter, designer, and engraver, active in Italy and Spain. One of the most original and interesting painters of 16th-century Europe, he transformed the Byzantine style of his early paintings into another, wholly Western manner. He was active in his native Crete, in Venice, and Rome, and, during the second half of his life, in Toledo. He was renowned in his lifetime for his originality and extravagance and provides one of the most curious examples of the oscillations of taste in the evaluation of a painter, and of the changes of interpretation to which an artist’s work can be submitted.

1. Life and work.

(i) Early work in Crete and Venice, before late 1570.

El Greco appears to have belonged to a Greek Orthodox—more than to a Catholic Greek—family of officials who worked for the Venetian colonial service; his father was a tax-collector, and an elder brother combined this activity with that of trader and privateer. It is not known with whom El Greco trained, although Ioannes Gripiotes (fl 1516–69) has been suggested, and Markos Strelitzas Bathás (c. 1498–1578) could have been a good candidate too; by 1563, however, El Greco was a master painter. His presence in Crete is documented until December 1566, when Georgios Klontzas (fl 1540–1608) and another painter valued a painting by him that was to be sold in a lottery. He was in Venice by August 1568, when he gave a series of cartographic drawings to Manolis Dassypris (of Cyprus). He remained there until late 1570, perhaps studying and working in Titian’s studio or perhaps only visiting, as he did the studio of Tintoretto.

It is difficult to determine which among all the icon panels attributed to El Greco belong to this period, and still less easy to establish which were painted in Candia and which in Venice. Probable Cretan works are the small tempera panels of St Luke Painting the Virgin (c. 1563–6; Athens, Benaki Mus.) and the signed Dormition of the Virgin (c. 1565–6; Syros, church of the Koimesis). The technique, iconography, and style of these panels are Post-Byzantine; but the tendency to break up symmetry and frontality, the interest in foreshortening, movement and space, the corporeality of the figures despite the linear style, the richness of colour, and the isolated but precise borrowings from Western art through Italian prints—including odd nude figures as a Victory/Fame in the former—are all new. This deliberate use of Western motifs becomes more frequent in such works as the Adoration of the Magi (c. 1565–7; Athens, Benaki Mus.) and the so-called Modena Triptych (c. 1567–9; Modena, Gal. & Mus. Estense), which has on its verso a View of Mt Sinai after an engraving (1569) by Giovanni Battista Fontana. Despite the apparent hesitancy of his approach to Western stylistic sources, El Greco introduced an extreme use of colour, with Tintorettesque orange tones, and of light—clearly evident in the religious landscape—which combine to produce an effect of ghostly unity. There is a different feeling in other works of the 1560s, for instance the Last Supper (Bologna, Pin. N.), the Flight into Egypt (Basle, Hirsch col., see Wethey, fig.), the Stigmatization of St Francis (Naples, Capodimonte), the Annunciation (Madrid, Prado), and the Adoration of the Shepherds (Kettering, priv. col., see Wethey, 1962, fig.); these show his desire to master the depiction of the natural and organic movement of the human body and its place in space, and his tendency to employ a more naturalistic lighting, which culminated in the nocturnal scene of the Adoration.

El Greco: Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind, oil on canvas, 47 x 57 1/2 in. (119.4 x 146.1 cm), possibly ca. 1570 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1978, Accession ID:1978.416); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The discovery of the signed Syros icon and the date proposed for the Modena Triptych have further confused the chronology of El Greco’s early work and an understanding of the process—apparently very swift and late—of his conversion into a fundamentally Western painter. If, as has been claimed, his Christ Driving the Money-changers from the Temple (tempera; Washington, DC, N.G.A.) and Christ Healing the Blind Man (mixed technique; Dresden, Gemäldegal. Alte Meister and version in oil; New York, Met.) were executed during his Venetian visit—as is implied by the multiple short brushstrokes, the definition of volume through light rather than shade, the one-point perspective (still incorrect) and the Venetian colouring—they must have been painted either just before his move to Rome or just after his arrival as a proof of his new Venetian style.

(ii) Rome, late 1570–77.

El Greco reached Rome at the end of 1570, having visited Verona, Parma, and Florence on the way, with an introduction—perhaps through Titian—from the Croatian miniaturist Giulio Clovio to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who gave him lodging in his palace in Rome. Before 18 July 1572—the date of a letter from the painter to his patron demanding an explanation—El Greco was chased out of the palace; on 18 September 1572 El Greco was admitted to the Accademia di S Luca as a painter, not as a miniaturist as has been conjectured, trying to make a living with no servitù particolare; by the end of the year he had opened a workshop in which he was assisted by the Sienese Lattanzio Bonastri da Lucignano (c. 1550–c. 1590). Information on this period is limited, but there is evidence of enmity between El Greco and Pirro Ligorio and probably Giorgio Vasari, among other painters, and of his criticizing Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, which probably caused his later departure for Spain. On the other hand, his stay in Rome and his friendships in the Farnese circle with Clovio and Fulvio Orsini provided the artist with a particular cultural and intellectual milieu and aroused his interest in humanist and philosophical questions, of which he was later proud. It was in this context that El Greco formed his artistic creed as a colourist in the Venetian tradition, critical of the Vasarian authorities Michelangelo and Raphael for their limitations as colourists, their excessive disegno, their rejection of the direct imitation of nature, and their blind reverence for the Antique. El Greco preferred the dynamism of Correggio and the elegance of Parmigianino, and he considered the colour and light of the Venetians as the only possible means of portraying and imitating nature, thereby reinforcing the beauty of reality through art.

El Greco’s second Christ Driving the Money-changers from the Temple (c. 1572; Minneapolis, MN, Inst. A.), the two new variations of Christ Healing the Blind Man (New York, priv. col.; Parma, G.N.), and an Annunciation (Madrid, Mus. Thyssen-Bornemisza) probably belong to his Roman period, if only because of the portrait in the first representing Giulio Clovio, together with Titian, Michelangelo, and, perhaps, El Greco himself because his hair is long as Cretan men used to wear it. His work here also included some portraits—he was introduced by Clovio as a ‘rare portraitist’—and such landscapes as the version of the View of Mt Sinai (late 1571; Herakleion, Art Institute, see 1989 exh. cat., no. 11), probably painted for Fulvio Orsini, and an ekphrasis of the Boy Lighting a Candle (‘The Blower’, Naples, Capodimonte)—a radical luminist and colourist realization of a lost picture by Antiphilus, described by Pliny. Of the portraits, the Self-portrait that amazed the Roman painters and the small paintings on copper of the Orsini collection are lost, but outstanding are those of his friends Giulio Clovio (Naples, Capodimonte) and Vincenzo Anastagi (c. 1575; New York, Frick). Already they clearly show the characteristics of dense impasto and great vivacity achieved through his sense of colour and movement that were to make El Greco a renowned portraitist in Spain.

(iii) Toledo, 1577–1614.

Possibly because of his lack of major public commissions in Rome, or perhaps attracted by the work being done on the decoration of the Escorial monastery and the possibility of royal patronage, El Greco left Italy in 1577, and after a short stay in Madrid he was in Toledo by 2 July of that year.

(a) Religious paintings.
Public commissions.

Thanks to his friendship with the Spanish ecclesiastic Diego de Castilla, whose son Luis frequented the Farnese circle in Toledo, El Greco received his first institutional commissions, the canvas of El Espolio (Disrobing of Christ, 1577–9; Toledo Cathedral, Sacristy) and three retables (1577–9) for the monastery of S Domingo el Antiguo. The first—the composition of which resulted in his first clash with local clients—shows Venetian colouring combined with Roman monumentality, as well as the artist’s flexibility in using colour to define form, volume, and space. In the S Domingo el Antiguo retables, the Adoration of the Shepherds (Madrid, Col. Emilio Botín Sanz; see 1989 exh. cat., p. 121, fig.) and the Resurrection (in situ), the importance of light, both artificial and natural, is accentuated through colour and through El Greco’s ability to handle complex and dynamic compositions in which his debt to the print progressively diminished. The principal retable, representing the Assumption of the Virgin (Chicago, IL, A. Inst.) and the Trinity (Madrid, Prado), shows his tendency to combine the legacies of Titian and Michelangelo in an original way.

El Greco: Burial of the Count of Orgaz, oil on canvas, 4.6×3.6 m, 1586–8 (Toledo, S Tomé); Photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY

By this time El Greco had completed one commission for Philip II, the Glory of Philip II (or Allegory of the Holy League, c. 1579–82; Madrid, Escorial; modello on panel, London, N.G.), and was to embark on a second, the Martyrdom of St Maurice (1580–83; Madrid, Escorial). The latter is strongly dependent on contemporary Roman painting, with the martyrdom scene placed in the middle distance. The work did not please Philip and the Hieronymite congregation, however, and it was removed (though it remained in the King’s collection). At this point, in his forties and with a son born in 1578, the artist decided to settle in Toledo and dedicate himself to a largely local clientele. In the 1580s he tended to give his paintings more clearly sculptural characteristics, closer to Spanish taste, using the portrayal of the mundane to create greater immediacy, and exaggerating features in the representation of divine and supernatural elements. An outstanding example of this treatment of the visible and the invisible—‘the imposible’ according to his own words—is his magnificent Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586–8; Toledo, S Tomé). The scene of the miracle, SS Stephen and Augustine assisting at the burial of the 14th-century nobleman Gonzalo Ruiz de Toledo, Count of Orgaz, is crowned by a fantastic Gloria, with a frieze-like group of naturalistic portraits of contemporary Toledans below.

At the end of the century El Greco began receiving important commissions again, such as those from the Colegio de Doña María de Aragón in Madrid (1596–1600), the chapel of S José in Toledo (1597–9), the Colegio de S Bernardino, Toledo (1603), and the Hospital de la Caridad at Illescas (1603–5). The style of these works, although executed in the same period, varies greatly. The tendency towards a spectral treatment of lighting, and its effect on human forms within vertiginous compositions where mass and space merge, is found particularly in the canvases—showing epiphanies of God on earth—for the retable at the Colegio de Doña María de Aragón: the Incarnation and Baptism (Madrid, Prado), the Adoration of the Shepherds (Bucharest, N. Mus. A.), and perhaps also the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Pentecost (Madrid, Prado). In these he achieved an extraordinary sense of the miraculous, maybe deriving from the mystical thinking of the preacher Alfonso de Orozco (1500–91) or perhaps from El Greco’s personal vision of the immanence of the divine. In the works for the hospital at Illescas, the immediacy of the Virgin of Charity (in situ) and the visual control of the tondi are particularly impressive with their oblique rather than frontal viewpoint.

El Greco: Adoration of the Shepherds, oil on canvas, 3.19×1.8 m, 1612–14 (Madrid, Museo del Prado); Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

These many directions and interests, together with a development towards a freer, sketchy style, reappear in his last works: the retables (1607–14) for the Ovalle Chapel of S Vicente Mártir, Toledo, representing the Immaculate Conception (Toledo, Mus. Santa Cruz) and the Visitation (Washington, DC, Dumbarton Oaks); the unfinished retables (1608–14) for the Hospital Tavera, Toledo, with scenes of the Baptism (in situ); the Vision of St John or the Resurrection of the Flesh (New York, Met.); and, finally, the Adoration of the Shepherds (1612–14; Madrid, Prado), intended by the artist for his own funerary monument in S Domingo el Antiguo. These works have been interpreted as late and extreme witnesses to El Greco’s mystic and spontaneous expressionism; but they may alternatively be the result of his deliberate manipulation of form, using colour and movement to convey the effects of light, mass, and space. Characteristics that are supposedly visionary, which are often accentuated in the nocturnal subjects, are perhaps only visual conventions, according with his conception of painting as a cognitive tool of different kinds of natures and visual phenomena.

Private commissions.

From the beginning of his activity in Toledo, El Greco also specialized in religious paintings, sold from his workshop to private clients. His first paintings of single saints date from his early years there, when his search for beauty is evident: for instance the St Sebastian (c. 1577–8; Palencia Cathedral) and the Mary Magdalene (Budapest, Mus. F.A.). This devotional genre was one in which he specialized until his death, producing an enormous number of originals and workshop copies, gradually restraining natural beauty and accentuating the superficial emotional expressions and the freedom of his brushwork. Outstanding among his half-length saints are St Veronica (tempera, c. 1577–8; formerly Madrid, priv. col., see 1989 exh. cat., p. 229, fig.) and St Lawrence and St Francis and Brother Leo (c. 1578–80; Monforte de Lemos, Colegio Cardinal). Figures become more sculptural in works of the 1580s, for example the St Francis (Omaha, NE, Joslyn A. Mus.), Mary Magdalene in Penitence (1585–90; Sitges, Mus. Cau Ferrat), and St Dominic (Toledo Cathedral). In the 1590s and early years of the 17th century, the canvases of the Repentance of St Peter (Toledo, Museo del Greco), St Jerome as Cardinal (1600–10; two versions: New York, Frick; New York, Met.), and the final series of Apostles (Toledo Cathedral and Toledo, Mus. del Greco) show a greater fluency.

El Greco: Christ Carrying the Cross, oil on canvas, 41 5/16 x 31 1/8 in. (105 x 79 cm), ca. 1580 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 1975.1.145, Accession ID:1975.1.145); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Also for private customers were various versions of religious narrative scenes, for example Christ Taking Leave of his Mother (Toledo, Mus. Santa Cruz), the Agony in the Garden (1590–95; Toledo, OH, Mus. A.), Christ Carrying the Cross (New York, Brooklyn Mus.; New York, Met.; see fig.), a new version of his St Francis and Brother Leo (c. 1600–05; Ottawa, N.G.), and the scenes of the Holy Family (1580–95; Toledo, Mus. Santa Cruz and Hosp. Tavera). Also very successful, although less devotional in character, were his full-length saints—portrayed singly, as in St Peter and St Ildefonsus (both c. 1610–14; Madrid, Escorial), or in pairs, as in SS Andrew and Francis (c. 1590–95; Madrid, Prado)—and his Crucifixion with Two Donors (c. 1578; Paris, Louvre) and Crucifixion (Cleveland, OH, Mus. A.).

(b) Portraits and mythological and landscape paintings.

El Greco was unanimously acclaimed by his contemporaries as a portraitist. A large number of his portraits survive, including a supposed Self-portrait (c. 1590; New York, Met.) and the portrait of his son, Jorge Manuel Theotokopoulos (c. 1600; Seville, Mus. B.A.). Most are of members of his immediate circle, from the sculptor Pompeo Leoni (c. 1577; Geneva, priv. col.) to such friends and liberal professionals as the so-called physician Rodrigo de la Fuente (c. 1585; Madrid, Prado), the scholar Antonio de Covarrubias (c. 1600; Paris, Louvre), the historian Francisco de Pisa (c. 1600; Fort Worth, TX, Kimbell A. Mus.), the preacher and poet Fray Hortensio de Paravicino (c. 1610; Boston, MA, Mus. F.A.), and the lawyer Jerónimo de Ceballos (c. 1610, Madrid, Prado). There is another group of unidentified Castilian gentlemen, such as the Man with his Hand on his Breast (1577–9) and the Old Man (c. 1580; both Madrid, Prado), and other titled noblemen. Portraits of more eminent figures such as Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara (c. 1600/04; New York, Met.) are rare; the portrait of a Woman with a Fur Wrap (Glasgow, Pollok House), depicting a supposed princess or noblewoman, has been mistakenly attributed to El Greco.

All El Greco’s portraits, austere and on a neutral ground except for the Titianesque, colouristic, and naturalistic portrait of Cardinal Niño de Guevara, show his ability to render psychological and physical traits. These are conveyed through the impression of vitality and dynamism, in action or repose, of the sitter, who is thereby brought to life for the viewer. In contrast to the portraiture of the court painters of the time of Philip II, El Greco brought a new spirit to a genre not often practised in Spain and provided Spanish painting with an example of spontaneity, from which Velázquez was to learn.

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos): View of Toledo, oil on canvas, 47 3/4 x 42 3/4 in. (121.3 x 108.6 cm) (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929, Accession ID: 29.100.6); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

El Greco cultivated other genres more rarely. Three versions of his Allegory, a fuller version of his previous ‘Blowers’, belong to his Spanish period (the last, c. 1585; Edinburgh, N.G.). Only one other mythological painting is known, a version (c. 1600; Washington, DC, N.G.A.) of the Classical sculpture group, the Laokoon (Rome, Vatican, Mus. Pio-Clementino), which he would have seen in Rome, in which the compositional change from the sculptured group is of central interest. His two landscapes, View of Toledo (c. 1597–1610; New York, Met.) and View and Plan of Toledo (Toledo, Museo del Greco), are also late works of c. 1600. In these El Greco is preoccupied with the means of representing what is perceived as well as an emblematic sense of the urban landscape and a zenithal projection of the city, a combination that was advanced in the representation of urban topography. It is possible that in Toledo and Madrid these works influenced interest in still-life and in landscape, genres that had, almost exclusively, been orientated towards a naturalistic type of formal structure.

El Greco: Portrait of a Man, oil on canvas, 20 3/4 x 18 3/8 in. (52.7 x 46.7 cm), ca. 1590–1600 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1924, Accession ID:24.197.1); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

(c) Sculptural and architectural designs.

While El Greco’s basic activity was as a painter, he also designed sculptures and architectural decorations. The monochrome sculptures of saints and Virtues for the S Domingo el Antiguo retable, and the later high altar in the Hospital Tavera, Toledo, were executed to his drawings and were in contrast to the Spanish polychrome tradition. Closer to this tradition is the polychrome wood group of the Virgin Bestowing the Chasuble on St Ildefonsus (1585–7) from the retable in the sacristy of Toledo Cathedral; the two other figures of Pandora and Epimetheus (both Madrid, Prado) have also been attributed to him with no basis. All these show the inevitable contradictions resulting from the application of El Greco’s aesthetic approach to sculpture.

Of greater importance, though not directly influential, was El Greco’s work as a designer of retables in an Italianate style. He introduced a type of retable in contrast to Spanish examples, based on models combining Palladian ideas with motifs derived from Michelangelo and Jacopo Vignola, in which the painted canvas is the focus of the composition, and the framework is not only a complementary subordinate but also a very personal interpretation of Italian motifs. The three retables (1577–9) in S Domingo el Antiguo exemplify this, while those in the S José Chapel (1597–8), the high altar (1603–7) in the hospital at Illescas, and the side altars (1608) in the Hospital Tavera have a more complex composition, and that of the Ovalle Chapel in S Vicente Mártir (Toledo, Mus. Santa Cruz) makes richer use of the orders and opens even a window as its highest attic, trying to intermingle nature and artifact.

Although in the 19th century building designs were incorrectly attributed to El Greco, it is possible that his architectural ideas influenced the work of Nicolás de Vergara the younger and Juan Bautista de Monegro. His most important innovation in this area, however, is in the decorative compositions at Illescas and the Ovalle Chapel. There he produced a form of Vasarian unità delle arti or Gesamtkunstwerk, which combined the painted canvases and quadri riportati on the walls and vaults, the architecture of the brilliant gilded and painted niches, the monochrome and polychrome sculptures, and the decoration, in unpolished gold and limewash, of the backgrounds of the architectural framework, in which light becomes another element of the pictorial illusion.

2. Workshop organization.

El Greco’s extensive production, particularly in Toledo, implies the existence of a large workshop, for which, however, there is little factual evidence. The possibly Italian painter Francesco Prevoste (c. 1528–1607) worked with El Greco throughout his life, but this supposed assistant’s work cannot be identified, just as the work of Luis Tristán de Escamilla, El Greco’s most important pupil, is only distinguishable from his master’s once he had become independent. The engraver Diego de Astór was also a pupil, but his collaboration is only evident in the prints of the last period. From the 1590s El Greco’s son, Jorge Manuel Theotocopoulos [Theotocópuli], became an important and even personal assistant and continued to head the workshop after his father’s death.

3. Character and personality.

A member of a family of not overscrupulous officials and traders, El Greco appears from his youth to have been involved in disputes and lawsuits. A restless man, with professional, social, and financial ambitions, he was proud and passionate, capable of whole-hearted admiration or contempt. Since his artistic vocation could not be satisfied in Crete, El Greco left his family and settled in Italy, where he learnt not only a new form but also a modern conception of artistic activity with its corresponding intellectual and social position. He probably moved to Spain in search, ultimately unsuccessfully, of royal commissions. Throughout, he enjoyed an extravagant and capricious lifestyle, always in debt, taking legal action when it was necessary to defend the value he placed on his paintings; he prided himself on his intransigence in the face of the demands of his clients and on his artistic freedom.

There is no evidence that he joined any of the innumerable religious confraternities or guilds in Toledo, a deduction that can be made from the instructions he left for his burial, and he seems to have had no interest in Spanish culture or religion. He studied and meditated on his own work and theorized on art in general. His personal library reflects his intellectual interests, showing a preference for Greek, Latin, and Italian authors and for Aristotelian rather than Neo-Platonic philosophy. His thoughts on art and his opinions on his contemporaries are conveyed in his annotations to his copy (Madrid, De Salas priv. col., now at the Bib. N.) of Vasari’s Lives, showing some similarities to those expressed by Federico Zuccaro and Agostino Carracci, and in his notes to his copy of the Italian edition (1556) of Vitruvius’ On Architecture, translated and annotated by Daniele Barbaro (Madrid, Bib. N.).

4. Critical reception and posthumous reputation.

In the 16th and 17th centuries El Greco was considered as an Italian, a philosopher given to aphorisms and a painter led to extravagance by an excessive desire for originality. His art was seen to combine the high qualities praised by such poets as Luis de Góngora and Hortensio Félix Paravicino and critics such as Giulio Mancini and Francisco Pacheco, together with a reprehensible contempt for the norms of decorum and religious devotion expected of painting (Fray José de Sigüenza and Pacheco). Antonio Palomino stressed the negative nature of this dual interpretation, and the ‘Enlightened’ critics of the 18th century explained his strangeness as madness. The revival of interest in El Greco’s art was due to French and English Romantics (Théophile Gautier and William Stirling-Maxwell), but the idea persisted that his periods of lucidity alternated with phases of madness. In the 19th century, while such artists as Delacroix, Millet, and Manet recognized his qualities and his genius, Charles Davilier, Gustave Doré, and the historian Carl Justi (1867) postulated an unhealthy imagination, a notion against which only Paul Lefort (1869) spoke out.

The theory of mental infirmity was replaced by that of optical infirmity (astigmatism) in the 20th century, and the so-called ‘El Greco fallacy’ persisted. In Spain, artists such as Santiago Rusiñol and Martín Rico y Ortega, champions of Impressionism and Symbolism, and even young Picasso, revived interest in El Greco as a predecessor of Velázquez. This paved the way for an interpretation that was consonant with that of several historians who regarded El Greco and his paintings as the outstanding representatives of the temperament and religious art associated with the Counter-Reformation, and intimately linked with the spirit and writings of such mystics as St Teresa of Ávila and St John of the Cross (Cossío, 1908; Camón Aznar, 1950; Wethey, 1962; Pita Andrade, 1981; Álvarez Lopera, 1989). This emphasis on El Greco as a Spanish artist is controversial, above all to Greek critics, who stress the importance of the Byzantine elements in his culture and painting. Other historians (Harris, 1938; Guinard, 1956; Davies, 1976) have introduced further factors in defining his personality, for instance his Italianized culture and Neo-Platonic ideology: this approach has been reinforced by linking El Greco’s work and ideas with the Greek tradition and Hispanic interpretations of the philosophy of Erasmus (Davies, 1989).

Interpretations diverging from this have taken two directions. On the one hand, Brown (1982 and 1984) and Mann (1986) have placed El Greco’s artistic production at the heart of the institutionalized revival in the age of Philip II of the Spanish Counter-Reformation, which he is seen as serving with an emotional and brilliant rhetorical style and the vital expression of a personal faith, providing religious consolation and inspiration to his viewers. On the other hand, Marías (1997, 2013, 2014) and Bustamante (1981), basing their views on the artist’s writings, have outlined an Italianate painter–philosopher detached from the religious issues of the period, who was instead fundamentally concerned with artistic and intellectual problems and involved in the investigation of nature and the formal means of achieving a perceptive imitation of reality, visual beauty, and vitality.

Stylistically, El Greco’s art has been labelled as an expression of the Venetian school, and of the anti-naturalistic subjectivism of the international Mannerism of the second half of the 16th century. His distortion of reality is seen as a prefiguration of modern Expressionism and as an instrument by which he could express his visionary, mystical, and religious personality. Despite these concepts, not devoid of historical anachronisms, El Greco’s painting belongs to the framework of the general Italian tendency—demonstrated in writings from Federico Zuccaro to Agostino Carracci—to oppose the ideology represented by Vasari’s categorization. Because of his late assimilation of a Western style, he tackled certain formal problems and, free from prejudice, rejected norms of proportion, relying on Michelangelo’s inventions, and geometrical perspective that he considered superfluous to his purposes, particularly in his search for personal originality. His use of a late Byzantine visual culture and of Venetian colouring, appraisal of naturalism and taste for complexity, and late Cinquecento aestheticism reveal his preference for naturalistic representation in terms that are strikingly visual; this is realized by highly original compositions of elegance and dynamism, executed in a vital style, that tried to fuse Titian and Tintoretto’s art with Michelangelo’s in a very personal way.


Early sources
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  • D. Davies: El Greco (Oxford and New York, 1976)
  • J. M. Pita Andrade: El Greco (Milan, 1981)
  • El Greco of Toledo (exh. cat., ed. J. Brown; Madrid, Prado; Washington, DC, N.G.A.; Toledo, OH, Mus. A.; Dallas, TX, Mus. A.; 1982–3)
  • El Greco Exhibition (exh. cat., ed. K. Kanki; Tokyo, N. Mus. W. A., 1986)
  • Domenikos Theotokopoulos Kres: El Greco of Crete (exh. cat., ed. N. Hadjinicolaou; Herakleion, Basilica of St Mark, 1990)
  • F. Marías: El Greco (Milan, 1991)
  • F. Marías: El Greco: Biographie d’un peintre extravagant (Paris, 1997)
  • J. Álvarez Lopera, ed.: El Greco: Identity and Transformation: Crete, Italy, Spain (Madrid, 1999)
  • El Greco (exh. cat., ed. D. Davies; New York, Met. and London, N.G., 2003)
  • F. Marías: El Greco: A New History (London, 2013)
  • El Greco of Toledo: Painter of the Visible and the Invisible (exh. cat., ed. F. Marías; Toledo, Mus. S. Cruz, 2014)
Specialist studies
  • M. Barrès: Le Greco ou le secret de Tolède (Paris, 1910/R 1966)
  • F. de B. San Román: El Greco en Toledo (Madrid, 1910); repr. in El Greco en Toledo (Toledo, 1982)
  • F. de B. San Román: ‘De la vida del Greco’, Archivo español de arte y arqueología [cont. as Archv Esp. Arqueol.; Archv Esp. A.], vol. 3 (1927), pp. 139–95, 275–339
  • E. Harris: ‘A Decorative Scheme by El Greco’, Burlington Magazine, vol. 72 (1938), pp. 154–64
  • N. Chadzidakis: ‘O Dominikos Theotokopoulos kai e kretike zographike’ [Dominikos Theotokopoulos and Cretan painting], Kretika Chron., vol. 4 (1950), pp. 371–440
  • G. Marañón: El Greco y Toledo (Madrid, 1956, rev. 2/1973)
  • H. Sohner: ‘Greco in Spanien’, Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst, n. s. 2, vol. 8 (1957), pp. 123–94; vols 9–10 (1958–9), pp. 147–242; vol. 11 (1960), pp. 173–217
  • X. de Salas: ‘Un Exemplaire des “Vies” de Vasari annoté par Le Greco’, Gazette des beaux-arts [suppl. is Chron. A.], n. s. 5, vol. 69 (1967), pp. 177–80
  • X. de Salas: Miguel Ángel y El Greco (Madrid, 1967)
  • E. Lafuente Ferrari and J. M. Pita Andrade: El Greco di Toledo e il suo espressionismo estremo (Milan, 1969; Eng. trans., New York, 1972)
  • M. Constantoudaki: ‘Dominicos Théotocopoulos (El Greco) de Candie à Venise: Documents inédits (1566–1568)’, Thesaurismata: Bollettino dell’Istituto ellenico di studi bizantini e postbizantini, vol. 12 (1975), pp. 292–308
  • S. Bettini: ‘Maistro Menegos Theotocopulos sgurafos’, Arte veneta, vol. 32 (1978), pp. 238–52
  • F. Marías and A. Bustamante: Las ideas artísticas de El Greco: Comentarios a un texto inédito (Madrid, 1981)
  • J. Brown: ‘Figures of Thought: El Greco as Interpreter of History, Tradition and Ideas’, Studies in the History of Art, vol. 11 (1982)
  • J. Brown and J. M. Pita Andrade eds: ‘El Greco: Italy and Spain’, Studies in the History of Art, vol. 13 (1984)
  • R. G. Mann: El Greco and his Patrons: Three Major Projects (Cambridge, 1986)
  • N. Panagiotaki: E kretike periodos tes zoes tou Domenikou Theotokopoulou [Dominikos Theotokopoulos’ Cretan period] (Athens, 1986)
  • C. L. Ragghianti: Periplo del Greco (Milan, 1987)
  • J.-L. Schefer: Le Greco ou l’éveil des ressemblances (Paris, 1988)
  • El Greco: Mystery and Illumination (exh. cat., ed. D. Davies; Edinburgh, N.G., 1989); review by E. Harris in Burlington Magazine, vol. 131 (1989), p. 726
  • El Greco of Crete: Proceedings of the International Symposium held on the occasion of the 450th anniversary of the artist’s birth: Iraklion, 1990
  • X. de Salas and F. Marías: El Greco y el arte de su tiempo: Las notas de el Greco a Vasari (Madrid, 1992)
  • El Greco in Italy and Italian Art: Proceedings of the International Symposium, Rethymnon, Crete, 22–24 Sept 1995
  • F. Marías: El Greco: Biografia de un pintor extravagante (Madrid and Paris, 1997)
  • El Greco: The First Twenty Years in Spain: Proceedings of the International Symposium, Rethymnon, Crete, 22–24 October 1999
  • Actas del Congreso sobre el Retablo del Colegio de Doña María de Aragón del Greco: Museo Nacional del Prado, 16/17 October 2000
  • S. G. Galassi and J. Brown: El Greco: Themes and Variations (New York, 2001)
  • F. Marías: El Greco in Toledo (London, 2001)
  • A. E. Perez Sánchez and others: El Greco: Apostolados (A Coruña, 2002)
  • F. Calvo Serraller and others: El Greco (Madrid, 2003)
  • El Greco’s Studio: Proceedings of the International Symposium, Rethymnon, Crete, 23–25 Sept 2005
  • J. Álvarez Lopera: El Greco. Estudio y catálogo, 2 vols (Madrid, 2005–7)
  • L. Ruiz Gómez: El Greco en el Museo Nacional del Prado. Catálogo razonado (Madrid, 2007)
  • N. M. Panagiotakes: El Greco. The Cretan Years (Aldershot, 2009)
  • F. Marías and M. Cruz de Carlos Varona, eds: El Greco: Los Apóstoles: Santos y ‘locos de Dios’ (Madrid, 2010)
  • A. R. Casper: Art and the Religious Image in El Greco’s Italy (Philadelphia, 2014)
  • J. Docampo and J. Riello, eds: La Biblioteca de El Greco (Madrid, 2014)
  • L. Ruiz Gómez, ed.: El Greco: Master and Painter (Madrid, 2014)
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