Baroque Spain: El Greco. Death and the Supernatural.

This week in the Spanish Baroque series will be a little different. We’re going to take a look at the art of El Greco. Today, we’ll examine his Burial of the Count of Orgaz. I will try to post a different El Greco work each day of the week.

I wanted to start with the Burial first even though at this point El Greco was in the middle of his career. It made a profound impression on me when I saw it for the first time in high school. I get light-headed looking at it and can only imagine that to survive seeing it in person, one would need to sit down or kneel because of the work’s imposing magnitude. Keeling may be the appropriate response – the painting rests 22 feet above ground-level. I believe it is El Greco’s masterpiece because it encapsulates the essence of the Catholic faith in seventeenth century Western Europe. It addresses an extraordinary visionary event and has multiple layers of meaning. I hope I can do it justice here and because I enjoy the painting so much, I’m only partially sorry that this week will not hold true to the “short” aspect of this series.

El Greco, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, 1586. Enlarged here.

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz is housed in Santo Tomé in Toledo. At 15 feet tall, it is larger than life. The scale is appropriate to the painting’s iconography, which is an eerie visual representation of the funeral of a pious Spanish Knight, the Count of Orgaz. He died in 1312 and left his considerable wealth to Santo Tomé. His funeral was a supernatural event. Legend has it that Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and Saint Augustine descended from the heavens and buried the Count with their own holy hands. El Greco knew the legend from texts that discussed the Count’s death.

In Visionary Experience in the Golden Age of Spanish Spanish Art, Victor Stoichita discusses several important aspects of the visionary, such as this burial scene and the mystical paintings we looked at last week, made real through visual expression.

  • First, visions and paintings are comparable because paintings make internal events real and able to be experienced by all. “What is the point of comparing vision and painting if, in fact, they have nothing in common? The answer is this: to compare what is incomparable is a means of communicating the incommunicable” (47).
  • Second, paintings of visions – and visions themselves – represent a paradox. They are “both interior and exterior, real and imagined” (59).
  • Third, representing visions well poses dangers to Catholic piety: “Painting can induce a gratifying deception and deceptive amazement in the intellect, by making us believe that the feigned is real” (68). In other words, well painted representations of the visionary run the risk of pious viewers giving more attention and loyalty to the object of the painting itself, rather than what the painting represents.
  • Fourth, another paradox: these visions can assist the viewer in reaching the same level of theopany (the presence of God) that the initial saint had, so well painted art has the power to distract and to aid (75).

How does El Greco render the supernatural event that occurred at the Count’s funeral? Through scale, his trademark exaggerated figures, and a tiered composition. The composition is brilliant. It’s incredibly complex with a million things happening and being revealed to the viewer at the same time. Each horizontal half of the painting is large enough and composed independently of the other half so that it could potentially be its own painting. The painting is an interactive exercise in movement and experience. To keep up with the pace of the heavenly realm, the viewer’s eyes are constantly moving. The funerary portion is much more somber, but  there are visual cues that move our eyes across the composition. The heavenly and earthly realms are combined through

  • Christ’s downcast eyes that lead us straight to the Count of Orgaz
  • An angel’s foot and flowing golden fabric, which connect the two realms
  • The priest’s heavenward eyes, which draw us back up to the source of this miracle (Christ).

El Greco, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, top portion. Large version here.

In the top portion of the Burial, the heavenly realms have opened. At center is Christ, who watches over the funeral events in the lower realm. To his left are Mary and Peter and to his right is John the Baptist. El Greco depicted an army of holy patriarchs and saints in the heavenly realm, among them King David, Mary Magdalene, and, surprise, the Spanish King Philip II who is still very much alive!  Saints Stephen and Augustine have already descended and are tending to the Count’s body.  As a Catholic, the Count will soon join the ghostly heavens and be counted among the saints. His soul, depicted as a baby, seems to be being lifted up to heaven by the angel that joins the two realms.

El Greco, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, bottom portion. Large version here.

When the viewer’s eye reaches the lower portion of the painting, the difference is jolting. The ethereal and phantom-like celestial realm has given way to a somber and dark affair. Several saints are present, including Saints Stephen and Augustine, who are burying the Count in the center of the composition, and saints Francis and Anthony. Members of the brotherhood of Santiago are also in attendance, identified by the red crosses on their clothing. In the heavens, space wasn’t an issue: everyone and everything ran into each other in a wraith-like manner. The earthly realm has restricted and orderly space. Figures are differentiated and individualized. The foreground space is reserved for the man of honor, the Count. The three-figure mini-scene is reminiscent of traditional depictions of the Entombment of  Christ. The saints take care in handling  the Count’s body. Several members in the audience have their eyes or hands lifted heavenward. In this way, the heavenly realm and indeed the whole event can be considered to be “both interior and exterior, real and imagined.” Not every person in the audience seems to be aware of the heavenly realm that has revealed itself above them. Certainly, most are watching the supernatural burial with fascination and subtle sorrow, but still some don’t look to the scene at all. Each of the men painted in the bottom half of the Burial are members of high society, their likenesses now preserved in paint and connected with this mysterious event forever. No one is frightened in the presence of death, perhaps because death paradoxically comforting.

El Greco, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, burial detail.

The Burial preserves the supernatural funeral of the Count of Orgaz and serves as a visual didactic aid. On another level, it visually assists viewers in contemplating the glorious rewards that await the faithful. The viewer is swept up into the heavens, into the wonders of their imaginations, left to marvel at what the heavens could be like. The answer lies with El Greco’s ghostly saints: the heavens are too marvelous to be depicted so much so that the human mind cannot fathom them enough to depict them in a way that makes sense. The artist must rely on light, abstraction and liquid-like movement across the composition to portray even the slightest notion of heaven. After all, God “performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted”1 and

although we owe our salvation and redemption to the passion of Christ, who by his merits opened heaven to the just; yet his ascension is not only proposed to us as a model, by which we may have learned to look on high, and ascend in spirit to heaven, but also imparts to us a divine virtue, by which we may be able to accomplish what it teaches.2

And so it was with the Count of Orgaz.

1Job 5:9
2The Catechism of the Council of Trent, trans. Theodore Alois Buckley. 1852.

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