painter Doménikos Theotokópoulos, better known
by his spanish name El Greco (The Greek), is
considered by many to be one of the greatest painters in
the history of European art. Relatively little, however,
is known about his personal history, particularly the first
25 years or so following his birth in 1541 in Crete. He
apparently descended from a wealthy and socially prominent
family and early in his career received training in the
Byzantine style of painting. This style is concerned with
religious expression and more specifically the impersonal
presentation of church theology in artistic terms.
Venetian citizenship (Crete was under the control of Venice)
allowed El Greco at age 27 to begin the study of painting
in Italy. He studied with Titian, who was considered one
of the greatest painters of the time and El Greco adopted
in his work the Venetian features of bright colours, movement,
and dramatic light. For a short period of time, El Greco
lived in Rome where he was exposed to the work of Michelangelo,
Raphael and Parmigiano. These artists practiced the style
of Mannerism, which valued the portrayal of the nude in
complex and artificial poses. The figures often have elongated
limbs, small heads, and stylized facial features, which
can be seen in exaggerated form in El Grecos later
reasons that remain unclear, El Greco left Italy for Spain
in the springtime of 1577 . One of the most accepted explanations
for the move was Philip IIs project of building the
monastery of San Lorenzo at El Escorial, near Madrid. Despite
the rejection of his sole painting for the King and the
lack of further royal commissions, his work was highly popular.
It was praised by the church and frequently copied well
into the seventeenth century.
1579, El Greco completed the first of two works that were
commissioned for the church of Santo Domingo el Antigua
in Toledo. The completion of the second work established
a local reputation that would sustain El Greco for the rest
of his life. At about the same time, the most recognizable
feature of El Grecos style emerged - the elongation
Burial of Count Orgaz (1586-88; Santo Tomé,
Toledo) shown to the left, is universally recognized as
El Grecos masterpiece. The picture commemorates the
burial in 1323 of the Lord of Orgaz, a benefactor of the
Church of Santo Tomé, when Saints Augustine and Stephen
miraculously appeared and placed the deceased in his sepulcher.
This vision is fabricated by an astonishing handling of
brilliant colour and radiant light. El Grecos Mannerist
method is nowhere more clearly expressed than here, as the
frontal plane is where all of the action takes place.
his career progressed, the elongation of human figures in
El Greco's work became more pronounced. This can be seen
in his classic St. Martin and the Beggar shown
below. His cultural blend of Greek, Italian, and Spanish,
created a unique and inimitable style. After El Grecos
death in 1614, there were no followers who adopted his artistic
style; his art was too individual and personal to be recreated.
It has been suggested that many
painters including, Holbein, Cranach the elder, Botticelli,
Titian, Modigliani, Sargent, and El Greco have suffered
from astigmatism. This suggestion is based on the recogntion
that astigmatism which induces unidirectional elongation
in the perception of objects. For example, a cylindrical
lens which is used to treat astigmatism, will cause an ellipse
to be seen as a circle. Similarily viewing one of El Greco's
paintings through a cylindrical lens in proper orientation
and power, eliminates the distortions.
there are several arguments that contradict this theory.
First, it has been noted that El Grecos tendency for
elongation is simply stylistic and can be traced back to
both the Byzantine and Mannerist eras. Secondly, El Grecos
elongated distortions did not simply occur in one direction
as would be expected with astigmatism; while most of his
human bodies are stretched vertically, the fingers are stretched
horizontally. Thirdly, in his most recognized work, The
Burial of Count Orgaz (see above), the vertical disotortions
are not uniform; there are normally proportioned figures
as well as distorted ones. Fourth, El Grecos distortions
progressed over his career. However, with astigmatism normally
the axis does not increase in severity with age. Fifth,
while the axis of astigmatism normally changes with age
from the vertical axis ("with-the-rule astigmatism")
to the horizontal axis ("against-the-rule astigmatism")
there was no indication of this change in El Greco's work.
Lastly, and perhaps most conclusively, X-ray analyses of
some of El Greco's works reveals that the underlying figures
were painted in normal proportions.
it is probably more reasonable to conclude that the distorted
tendencies in El Grecos works are attributed to a
purposeful style and not a visual abnormality.