The Burial Of Count Orgaz

El Greco, The Burial of Count Orgaz
1586-1588
oil on canvas
460 × 360 cm
Santo Tomé, Toledo, Spain

The The Burial of the Count of Orgaz is widely considered to be El Greco's best-known work. It illustrates a popular local legend. An exceptionally large painting, it is very clearly divided into two zones, the heavenly above and the terrestrial below, but there is little feeling of duality. The upper and lower zones are brought together compositionally.

Scene

The theme of the painting is inspired from a legend of the beginning of the 14th century. In 1312, a certain Don Gonzalo Ruíz, native of Toledo, and Señor of the town of Orgaz, died (the family received the title of Count, by which he is generally known, only later). Count of Orgaz was a pious man who, among other charitable acts, left moneys for the enlargement and adornment of the church of Santo Tomé (El Greco's parish church).[1] He was also a philanthropist and a right-thinking Knight. At the time he was being buried, Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine themselves, according to the legend, descended from heaven and buried him in front of the dazzled eyes of those present.[2]

Detail of the painting

History

The painting remains in the chapel - the purported scene of the event - for which it was ordered. Already in 1588, people flocked to see the painting. This immediate popular reception depended, however, on the life-like portrayal of the notable men of Toledo of the time.[3] It was the custom for the eminent and noble men of the town to assist at the burial of the high-born, and it was stipulated in the contract that the scene should be represented in this way.[2]

El Greco would pay homage to the aristocracy of the spirit, the clergy, the jurists, the poets and the scholars, who honored him and his art with their esteem, by immortalizing them in the painting. The Burial of the Count of Orgaz has been admired not only for its art, but also because it was a gallery of portraits of the most eminent social figures of that time in Toledo. Indeed, this painting is sufficient to rank El Greco among the few great portrait painters.[2]


Analysis of the painting

The painting is very clearly divided into two zones; above, heaven is evoked by swirling icy clouds, semiabstract in their shape, and the saints are tall and phantomlike; below, all is normal in the scale and proportions of the figures.[4] The upper and lower zones are brought together compositionally (e.g., by the standing figures, by their varied participation in the earthly and heavenly event, by the torches, cross etc.).[2]

The scene of the miracle is depicted in the lower part of the composition, in the terrestrial section. In the upper part, the heavenly one, the clouds have parted to receive this just man in Paradise. Christ clad in white and in glory, is the crowning point of the triangle formed by the figures of the Madonna and Saint John the Baptist in the traditional orthodox composition. These three central figures of heavenly glory are surrounded by apostles, martyrs, Biblical kings and the just (among whom was Philip II of Spain, though he was still alive.[5]

Saints Augustine and Stephen, in golden and red vestments, bend reverently over the body of the count, who is clad in magnificent armour that reflects the yellow and reds of the other figures. The young boy at the left is El Greco's son, Jorge Manuel; on a handkerchief in his pocket is inscribed the artist's signature and the date 1578, the year of the boy's birth. The men in contemporary 16th-century dress who attend the funeral are unmistakably prominent members of Toledan society.[4]

The painting has a chromatic harmony that is incredibly rich, expressive and radiant. On the black mourning garments of the nobles are projected the gold-embroidered vestments, thus creating an intense ceremonial character. In the heavenly space there is a predominance of transparent harmonies of iridescence and ivoried greys, which harmonize with the gilded ochres, while in the maforium of Madonna deep blue is closely combined with bright red. The rhetoric of the expressions, the glances and the gesturla translation make the scene very moving.[6]

The Dormition of the Virgin

The Dormition of the Virgin (before 1567, tempera and gold on panel, 61,4 x 45 cm, Holy Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin, Hermoupolis, Syros) was probably created near the end of the artist's Cretan period. The iconographic type of the Dormition was suggested as the compositional model for the Burial of the Count of Orgaz for quite some time.

Assessments

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz is regarded as the first completely personal work by the artist. There are no longer any references to Roman or Venetian formulas or motifs. He has succeeded in eliminating any description of space. There is no ground, no horizon, no sky and no perspective. Accordingly, there is no conflict, and a convincing expression of a supernatural space is achieved.[2] According to Harold Wethey, the supernatural vision of Gloria (“Heaven”) above and the impressive array of portraits represent all aspects of this extraordinary genius's art.[4] Wethey also asserts that "El Greco's Mannerist method of composition is nowhere more clearly expressed than here, where all of the action takes place in the frontal plane".[4]

The composition of the painting has been closely related to the byzantine iconography of the Assumtion of the Virgin. The examples that have been used to support this point of view have a close relationship with the icon of the Dormition by El Greco that was discovered in 1983 in the church of the same name in Syros. Marina Lambraki-Plaka believes that such a connection exists.[5] Robert Byron, according to whom the iconographic type of the Dormition was the compositional model for The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, asserts that El Greco as a genuine Byzantine painter worked throughout his life with a repertoire of components and motifs at will, depending on the narrative and expressive requirements of the art.[7]

According to Lambraki-Plaka, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz is a landmark in the artist's career. "This is where El Greco sets before us, in a highly compressed form the wisdom he has brought to his art, his knowledge, his expertise, his composite imagination and his expressive power. It is the living encyclopedia of his art without ceasing to be a masterpiece with organic continuity and entelechy".[6]


References

  1. ^ M. Lambraki-Plaka, El Greco-The Greek, 54-55
  2. ^ a b c d e Web Gallery of Art, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz
  3. ^ M. Lambraki-Plaka, El Greco-The Greek, 54
  4. ^ a b c d "Greco, El". Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2002).
  5. ^ a b M. Lambraki-Plaka, El Greco-The Greek, 55
  6. ^ a b M. Lambraki-Plaka, El Greco-The Greek, 55-56
  7. ^ R. Byron, Greco: The Epilogue to Byzantine Culture, 160-174

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