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El Greco: 400 years since his death

Updated Monday, 7th April 2014
On the 400th anniversary of El Greco's death, we revisit the man, and how his exposure to varied visual cultures developed a unqiue style.

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El Greco Portrait of a Man (presumed self-portrait of El Greco) El Greco is the name with which the artist born Domenikos Theotokopoulos found fame among the greatest painters of the western world. He was born in 1541 in the capital of the then Venetian-dominated Crete, Candia, presently known as Herakleion. There he originally trained as a Byzantine icon painter and by the age of 26 he had acquired the title of ‘master’.

By the time El Greco was training to become an artist, in the second half of the sixteenth century in his native Crete, the island had been transformed in a cultural melting pot. Originally part of the Byzantine Empire with native Greek Orthodox population, Crete was ceded to the Venetians after the capture of Constantinople by the troops of the fourth Crusade in 1204. The Venetians occupied the island until 1669.

During the course of 450 years, the initially forced co-existence between Greek Orthodox and Venetian Roman Catholic transformed and blossomed in a cross-cultural exchange openly reflected in the island’s artistic production. Byzantine art influenced and at the same time open itself up to influences from the western Renaissance.  

Like other icon Cretan painters before him, El Greco left his hometown for Venice in 1567, where he chose to further his training by joining Titian’s workshop. El Greco must have weighted his options regarding his career prospects and probably realised that:

  • by returning to Crete he would have ended up being just another Cretan Byzantine icon painter
  • by staying in Venice he would have ended up working in the long shadow cast by Titian and Tintoretto.

Instead El Greco moved to Spain, where the art market was still flexible and where there were not yet any established parameters to either comply to or compete for recognition. He eventually settled in Toledo in 1577, never to leave and where he died on 7th April 1614; the works he produced there gave him eternal fame.

The style that is primarily associated with El Greco can be recognised in various details throughout his career, but it was fully developed after he settled in Toledo, during his late period, and is apparent mainly in his Spanish works. It consists predominantly of non-naturalistic elements, such as elongated, thin figures with anatomically distorted bodies, which invariably have long, thin fingers.

If the limbs of his figures are naked, then they resemble soft dough, or soft white clay that invites touch. If the figures are dressed, they look as if wrapped in thin pieces of fragile, folded metal. There is no realistic representation of textile surfaces and the constructions and folds are often impossible. There is also no attempt to create a perspectival space. In other words, there is no intention to recreate a ‘true to nature’ world. The palette is very strong with predominant vivid shades of red, blue and ochre.

El Greco’s style as described above, quite unique and easily recognisable, is certainly the result of his exposure to different visual cultures. His native Crete already presented a blend of Byzantine and western traditions, in bilingual artistic expression that appealed to its hybrid population. Venice offered a plethora of multi-cultural exposure. El Greco was able to assimilate it all and express it in a new visual language, making a mark in world art through his Spanish creations.


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