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Artist Spotlight: El Greco

Welcome to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, we are going to discuss one of the most interesting artists in history,Doménikos Theotokópoulos, or as he is better known, El Greco. He is often considered to be the Father of the Spanish Renaissance. His works are known for their elongated figures, rich pigments, and tight composition. Although his contemporaries were often confused by his work, centuries after his death, it inspired many movements, including Expressionism and Cubism. This post is going to explore his life and three of his most famous works. 


El Greco was born in 1541 on the island of Crete. At this time, the island was under the rule of the Republic of Venice. Not much is known about his early life, but it is known that he started his career in Venice. This city was a hub for artists and had its own version of the Renaissance. El Greco also spent some time in Rome. Records of this time indicate that he studied the great masters, including Michelangelo. Although he didn't necessarily like his style, El Greco understood Michelangelo's importance and was influenced by his paintings and sculptures. 

In 1577, El Greco moved to Toledo, Spain. This city was the religious center of the ever growing Spanish Empire, as well as a major metropolitan area. It was also the home of El Escorial, a royal palace and mausoleum complex. Phillip II, the king, was looking for artists to help decorate and El Greco submitted his work. Unfortunately for him, Phillip was not a fan of his work and declined to have him work further on El Escorial. 

Despite this setback, El Greco chose to remain in Toledo. This was a smart decision because his work gained popularity and he established a career there. It was during this period that the majority of his most famous works were painted. He had one son, who grew up to be an artist and worked with him in the family workshop. El Greco died in 1614 at the age of 73. 


Now that we understand his life, it's time to examine some of his most famous works. We are going to start with The Disrobing of Christ. El Greco painted it between 1577-79. It was a commission for the Cathedral of Toledo, where it hangs to this day. (Occasionally, though, it is taken to the Prado museum for cleaning and restoration). 

This painting tells the story of Christ's robes being removed in preparation for His Crucifixion. In the bottom right corner, the viewer can see the three Mary's looking across the painting to a man building the cross that will be the instrument of Jesus' death. Christ is front and center, His red robe drawing the viewer's eye to him. He looks skyward, asking His Father about the horrors to come. The composition is compact and vertical, forcing the confrontation of the scene. 

In this work, viewers can see the influence of Byzantine art on El Greco. Firstly, the figures are quite elongated. Their proportions are not what we expect from human figures, which almost gives an otherworldly appearance. The rich pigment of the work is also a Byzantine trademark. 


Our next work is perhaps the most well-known of El Greco's paintings. It is called The Burial of Count Orgaz and was created in 1586. The work is based on a 14th century Spanish legend. Count Orgaz was a wealthy and philanthropic Spanish count. Sadly, he was murdered. At his funeral, according to the legend, the Saints Stephen and Augustine descended from heaven to help bury him. 

This painting is divided into two parts: the earthly and the divine. The bottom half of the painting shows the burial itself. The viewer can see the above-mentioned saints lowering the count into his grave. The composition is very similar to scenes of Christ's Deposition. Again, we can see the rich color palette inspired by Byzantine art. 

The top half of the painting is a spectacular scene of heaven. Christ, the Virgin Mary, and St. John the Baptist look down on the funeral service. They form a triangular composition, reflecting both the idea of the Holy Trinity and Count Orgaz and the two saints below. The perspective is also shifted up, forcing the viewer to bend their neck backward to take in heaven above. 


The last work we are going to examine isThe Opening of the Fifth Seal. It was painted between 1608-14, at the end of El Greco's life. The subject of this painting is one of the apocalyptic visions found in the Book of Revelations. It is a jarring work. There is almost no sense of time or place. El Greco used almost all cool toned pigments in this piece, giving it a melancholy air.  The figures are all extremely elongated, more than the other paintings discussed. It is a haunting work, which fits well with the subject. 

One of the most interesting facts about this work is the impact that it had on later artists. One of those was Pablo Picasso. In his work,Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the viewer can see that he used this work by El Greco as inspiration. Although the subject is completely different, there are still similarities in the composition. Picasso uses the same cool tones, lack of setting, and elongated figures as El Greco. Although his work was considered odd in his own time, it was clear that El Greco had some interesting ideas about art. 


El Greco's style and ideas about art were truly ahead of his time. He gave a unique perspective on multiple subjects that would influence artists for generations to come. 

Is there an artist that you would like to see featured? Leave a comment down below! 

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