Cretan-born painter, sculptor and architect El Greco is regarded as the first great genius of the Spanish School. The artist combined the Byzantine style of Greece with influences from Venice and the medieval tradition of Spain to create a style all his own. He is now regarded as one of the most important representatives of European Mannerism.
El Greco (originally named Domenikos Theotokopoulos) was born in Iráklion, Crete, in 1541. While not much is known about the Theotocopoulos family, it can be assumed that they had some status in order to provide their son with a liberal education. It is also likely that he would have received his artistic training in his native city. Although no works from his early career have survived, they were probably painted in the late Byzantine style which was popular in Crete at the time. While the western world was exploring new painting techniques, Byzantine art, known for its spectacular design and color, still flourished in Greece.
The incursion of the Turks into the Eastern Mediterranean prompted El Greco to leave Crete in about 1566 and move on to Venice where he remained until 1570. He was employed in the workshop of Venetian painter Titian, and also strongly influenced by Venetian Mannerist painter Tintoretto, both masters of the High Renaissance and masters in color. It was during these years that he became known as El Greco. However, he always signed his works using his Greek birth name.
‘The Modena Triptych’ was documented as one of El Greco’s earliest works in Italy that demonstrates his gradual transition from the flat and relatively rigid geometrical designs of Byzantine art to the incorporation of the looser, more naturalistic and three-dimensional designs of Italian and Venetian inspirations. Such early Venetian paintings as his ‘Christ Healing the Blind Man’ painted in the late 1560’s displays Tintoretto's influence through the use of space and movement as dramatic elements of the design.
El Greco moved to Rome, capital of the Christian world, in 1570, and stayed on for several years. The sculptural qualities of the work of Italian artist Michelangelo inspired him, as is evident in his ‘Pietà’. In the group of portraits in ‘Christ driving the Traders from the Temple’, he acknowledges his debt to Michelangelo and Titian, and possibly also to Raphael.
In 1576, the artist received an offer to paint for the Cathedral of Santo Domingo in Toledo, Spain. This was his first work on a monumental scale which involved designing the whole scheme of decoration. He created a series of masterpieces including ‘Assumption of the Virgin, ‘Trinity’, ‘Resurrection’ and ‘Espolio’. During these early years in Spain, he met and fell in love with Jerónima de las Cuevas, a native of Toledo who became his life-long companion. They had a son in 1578 named Jorjé Manuel.
An opportunity to work for the Escorial presented itself when Navarrete, a painter used by Philip II, died, and the king was looking for a replacement. When El Greco’s ‘Martyrdom of St. Maurice’ did not appeal to Philip, the painter took some time to regroup and refine his style.
In his later years, El Greco produced works such as ‘Saint Mary Magdalene’ and ‘Saint Sebastian’. A more personal work entitled ‘Burial of the Count of Orgaz’, painted in 1586, expresses a more spiritual atmosphere that reflected his feelings with regard to heaven and earth.
The artist died on April 7, 1614, and was buried in Santo Domingo el Antiguo. Although El Greco was forgotten for over three centuries, a rediscovery of his works has classified him as a very popular master of the past.