Burial of the Count of Orgaz El Greco Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, located at the Church of Saint Thomas in the Spanish city of Toledo, is an oil-on-canvas painting created by Cretan-born artist El Greco in 1586.

El Greco, whose real name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos, had already gained a reputation as an accomplished painter of ecclesiastical scenes by the time that he arrived in Spain and was soon able to establish a workshop in Toledo where he could work on his commissions.

The painting, executed in the Mannerist style that was popular at the time, is displayed in an archway within the church's side-chapel and above the tomb of the man whose funeral is depicted in the masterpiece.

Don Gonzalo Ruíz, a local nobleman and retainer of the Orgaz estate, arranged for annual payments to be made to the Saint Thomas parish and in accordance with his will was buried within the church. Ruíz, who died in the early fourteenth century, had been a soldier and philanthropist whose death was mourned by Toledo residents. Legend states that on the day of Ruíz's interment Saints Augustine and Stephen appeared and assisted the priest with the funerary proceedings. Accounts of this miracle, despite the lack of official recognition from the Church, spread throughout Toledo and became part of the local folklore. Ruíz was awarded a posthumous promotion from the rank of Señor to Count.

After two centuries of annuities, bequeathed by the Count for upkeep of the church and its parishioners, the payments ceased which resulted in a lawsuit being filed by the parish against the Orgaz estate. The owed amount was awarded to the parish and Andrés Núñez, the local priest whose efforts secured the payment, used the funds to commission a painting depicting the miraculous events that were reported to have occurred at the funeral. El Greco, a parish resident and member of the Saint Thomas congregation, was chosen by Núñez to paint the masterpiece on the condition that he would have the painting completed by Christmas. El Greco reports being paid 1,200 ducats for the painting.

The painting, fifteen feet tall and eleven feet wide, is divided into two scenes depicting both the Count of Orgaz's burial below and the heavens opening above. Núñez instructed El Greco to fill the entire space in which the painting was to be set, that is an archway consisting of a half-circle on top of a rectangular base, and requested that local dignitaries living at the time of the masterpiece's creation be present in the painting. The inclusion of these high-ranking men at the burial scene, wearing black shirts with red crosses which suggest that they were members of the Order of Santiago, was a deliberate anachronism designed to flatter these elite members of Toledo society.

The Count, wearing a suit of black plate-armour that informs the observer that he had been a high-ranking soldier during his lifetime, is being lifted from the ground by the golden-robed figures of Saint Augustine and Saint Stephen who are using a white sheet to raise his body from the floor. A juvenile who is believed to be El Greco's son, dressed in black and holding a burning torch in his left hand, points with his right hand at the scene unfolding before him. The priest officiating at the funeral, his hands outstretched and his face fixed in an astonished expression, raises his head towards the celestial scene while Núñez appears behind the priest reading from an open book.

A bearded figure in robes of white that one can assume to be Jesus, surrounded by golden light and with a bright cross visible behind his head, takes central position at the top of the canvas where he looks down at both the funerary and heavenly scenes. Saint Peter, cloaked in golden robes and holding the keys to Heaven in his left hand, sits below Jesus on the right-hand-side of the canvas. A prominent female figure whom could represent the Virgin Mary, attired in robes of orange and purple, sits beneath Peter and Jesus. Two white-robed men, playing golden harps, sit just above the cloud that separates the heavenly and earthly sections of the painting while looking up towards Jesus.