Even if you’ve never seen Toledo – and even if you’ve no idea what to expect – there’s an uncanny familiarity about your first view of it, with the Alcázar and the cathedral spire towering above the tawny mass of the town. This is due to El Greco, whose constant depiction of the city (as background, even, for the Crucifixion) seems to have stuck, albeit unwittingly, somewhere in everyone’s consciousness.
Domenikos Theotokopoulos, “the Greek”, was born in Crete in 1541 and worked in Venice and Rome before going to Spain. He had originally hoped to get work on the decoration of El Escorial, but after being rejected by Felipe II, he arrived in Toledo in about 1577. His first major commission was to produce a series of paintings for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo and many others followed, including his most famous work: The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. El Greco remained in the city until his death in 1614 which came while he was working on a commission for the Hospital de Tavera. He was buried in Santo Domingo el Antiguo.
Many of El Greco’s extraordinary paintings – some of the most individual, most intensely spiritual visions of all Spanish art – remain scattered throughout the city. Years ahead of his time, his work went on to influence artists for centuries to come, including Manet, Cezanne and Picasso.
Hortension Félix Paravicino, a Spanish preacher and poet who was a subject of one of El Greco’s paintings, commented “Crete gave him life and the painter’s craft, Toledo a better homeland, where through death he began to achieve eternal life.”