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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 Virgin and Child is assumed to have been painted close to the end of his Cretan Period before 1567 and was one of the most elaborate paintings El Greco ever made. It was specially made for the Saint Joseph Chapel in Toledo.

The painting combines the elements of Italian mannerist style and post-Byzantine. In the Burial of the Count of Orgaz, for instance, there is a close relation to the Byzantine iconography.

Placed on the opposite side of the beggar and Saint Martin, the Virgin and child painting shows infant Jesus and the Virgin Mary enthroned in heaven and surrounded by seraphim and the angels. The posture portrayed in the image is similar to that brought out in the Holy Family with Saint Mary Magdalen in Cleveland. At the bottom St. Agnes with a lamb and St. Martina with a lion (two virgin martyrs) are seen adoring the heavenly group. As he was executing a commission for the Tavera Hospital, El Greco fell ill and died a month later at 73 and was then laid to rest in the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo.

El Greco was a renowned artist, sculptor, and architect of his time, and was born in 1541 in Crete, which was a section of the Republic of Venice, and later died on 7 April 1614. His expressionistic and dramatic style of artistry was not appreciated by his contemporaries but came to be appreciated in the 20th century. He is, in fact, regarded as a precursor of both Cubism and Expressionism since his work inspired poets and writers, including Nikos Kazantzakis and Rainer Maria Rilke.

Modern scholars refer to El Greco as an individual and a unique artist, citing he belongs to no conventional school. His work brings out the marrying of western paintings and Byzantine traditions. He got his first training in Cretan school, which was then the leading centre of post-Byzantine art. He is believed to have also studied the Latin classics and those of the ancient Greece. At the time of his passing, El Greco behind a library of about 130 books and among them are an annotated Vasari and a Bible written in Greek.

In a document published in 1563 when El Greco was 20 years old, he was described as “maestro Domenigo,” which meant he was a master of the painters’ guild. Later in 1566 as a witness to a contract, El Greco signed himself as Master MenegosTheotokopoulos, painter. According to scholars, Theotocopoulos was a family of the Greek Orthodox even if most Catholic sources claim he was Catholic from birth. Most scholars speculate that he must have transformed himself to Catholicism in Spain where he also described himself as a devout Catholic.

The great outlier of the 16th century El Greco was deeply religious, merged the traditions of three different counties in his artistry, was passionately single-minded, and had a unique, unsettling painterly language that took a long time to find a receptive audience. To him, colour was the most ungovernable and most important element of all his paintings, and he declared that to him, colour had supremacy over form.

The figures he painted appear elongated, something so artistic that does not look humanly possible. Most of the Spanish paintings strove for sensual potency and religious intensity, and he is said to have sacrificed naturalism to get there. From 1597 to 1607, there was an intense activity for him where during that period, he received major commissions, and his workshop took to creating pictorial and sculptural ensembles for religious institutions.

At this time, he created three paintings for the Colegio de Dona Maria de Aragon in Madrid, three altars for San Jose Chapel Toledo and St. Ildefonso painting for the Capilla Mayor at lllescas. Around 1607/1608, there was a major dispute between El Greco and the authorities of the Hospital of Charity of lllescas regarding the payment for his work. This resulted in economic difficulties towards the end of his career. During both 17th and 18th century, his work did not seem to gain recognition, but he seemed not to lose hope in the fact that one day; even if it took centuries, his artistry would gain fame. The revival of his work surfaced in Paris around the 19th century where a Spanish art gallery featured nine of El Greco’s pieces.