The Burial of the Count of Orgaz
|Type||Oil on canvas|
|Dimensions||460 cm × 360 cm (180 in × 140 in)|
The Burial of the Count of Orgaz is a painting by El Greco, a painter, sculptor, and architect of the Spanish Renaissance. Widely considered among his finest works, it illustrates a popular local legend of his time. An exceptionally large painting, it is very clearly divided into two sections, heavenly above and terrestrial below, but it gives little impression of duality. The upper and lower sections are brought together compositionally.
The theme of the painting is inspired from a legend of the beginning of the 14th century. In 1312, a certain Don Gonzalo Ruíz, native of Toledo, and Señor of the town of Orgaz, died (his family later received the title of Count, by which he is generally and posthumously known). The Count of Orgaz was a pious man who, among other charitable acts, left a sum of money for the enlargement and adornment of the church of Santo Tomé (El Greco's parish church). He was also a philanthropist and a right-thinking Knight. According to the legend, at the time he was buried, Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine descended in person from the heavens and buried him by their own hands in front of the dazzled eyes of those present.
The painting was commissioned by Andrés Núñez, the parish priest of Santo Tomé, for the side-chapel of the Virgin of the church of Santo Tomé, and was executed by El Greco between 1586–1588. Núñez, who had initiated a project to refurbish the Count's burial chapel, is portrayed in the painting reading.
Already in 1588, people were flocking to Orgaz to see the painting. This immediate popular reception depended, however, on the lifelike portrayal of the notable men of Toledo of the time. It was the custom for the eminent and noble men of the town to assist the burial of the noble-born, and it was stipulated in the contract that the scene should be represented in this manner.
El Greco would pay homage to the aristocracy of the spirit, the clergy, the jurists, the poets and the scholars, who honored him and his art with their esteem, by immortalizing them in the painting. The Burial of the Count of Orgaz has been admired not only for its art, but also because it was a gallery of portraits of the most eminent social figures of that time in Toledo. Indeed, this painting is sufficient to rank El Greco among the few great portrait painters.
Analysis of the painting
The painting is very clearly divided into two zones; above, heaven is evoked by swirling icy clouds, semiabstract in their shape, and the saints are tall and phantomlike; below, all is normal in the scale and proportions of the figures. The upper and lower zones are brought together compositionally (e.g., by the standing figures, by their varied participation in the earthly and heavenly event, by the torches, cross etc.).
The scene of the miracle is depicted in the lower part of the composition, in the terrestrial section. In the upper part, the heavenly one, the clouds have parted to receive this just man in Paradise. Christ clad in white and in glory, is the crowning point of the triangle formed by the figures of the Madonna and Saint John the Baptist in the traditional orthodox composition of the Deesis. These three central figures of heavenly glory are surrounded by apostles, martyrs, Biblical kings and the just (among whom was Philip II of Spain, though he was still alive).
Saints Augustine and Stephen, in golden and red vestments respectively, bend reverently over the body of the count, who is clad in magnificent armour that reflects the yellow and reds of the other figures. The young boy at the left is El Greco's son, Jorge Manuel; on a handkerchief in his pocket is inscribed the artist's signature and the date 1578, the year of the boy's birth. The artist himself can be recognised directly above the raised hand of one of the mourners immediately above the head of Saint Stephen. The men in contemporary 16th-century dress who attend the funeral are unmistakably prominent members of Toledan society.
The painting has a chromatic harmony that is incredibly rich, expressive and radiant. On the black mourning garments of the nobles are projected the gold-embroidered vestments, thus creating an intense ceremonial character. In the heavenly space there is a predominance of transparent harmonies of iridescence and ivoried greys, which harmonize with the gilded ochres, while in the maforium of Madonna deep blue is closely combined with bright red. The rhetoric of the expressions, the glances and the gestural translation make the scene very moving.
The Burial of the Count of Orgaz is regarded as the first completely personal work by the artist. There are no longer any references to Roman or Venetian formulas or motifs. He has succeeded in eliminating any description of space. There is no ground, no horizon, no sky and no perspective. Accordingly, there is no conflict, and a convincing expression of a supernatural space is achieved. According to Harold Wethey, the supernatural vision of Gloria (“Heaven”) above and the impressive array of portraits represent all aspects of this extraordinary genius's art. Wethey also asserts that "El Greco's Mannerist method of composition is nowhere more clearly expressed than here, where all of the action takes place in the frontal plane".
The composition of the painting has been closely related to the Byzantine iconography of the Assumption of the Virgin. The examples that have been used to support this point of view have a close relationship with the icon of the Dormition by El Greco that was discovered in 1983 in the church of the same name in Syros. Marina Lambraki-Plaka believes that such a connection exists. Robert Byron, according to whom the iconographic type of the Dormition was the compositional model for The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, asserts that El Greco as a genuine Byzantine painter worked throughout his life with a repertoire of components and motifs at will, depending on the narrative and expressive requirements of the art. Wethey rejects as "unconvincing" the view that the composition of the Burial is derived from the Dormition, "since the work is more immediately related to Italian Renaissance prototypes". In connection with its negation of spatial depth by compressing figures into the foreground, the early Florentine Mannerists—Rosso Fiorentino, Pontormo and Parmigianino—are mentioned, as well two paintings by Tintoretto: the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Lazarus, the latter because of the horizontal row of spectators behind the miracle. The elliptical grouping of the two saints, as they lower the dead body, is said to be closer to Titian's early Entombment than to any other work.
According to Lambraki-Plaka, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz is a landmark in the artist's career. "This is where El Greco sets before us, in a highly compressed form the wisdom he has brought to his art, his knowledge, his expertise, his composite imagination and his expressive power. It is the living encyclopedia of his art without ceasing to be a masterpiece with organic continuity and entelechy".
- M. Lambraki-Plaka, El Greco-The Greek, 54–55
- Web Gallery of Art, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz
- R.-M. Hagen–R. Hagen, What Great Paintings Say, II, 198
* M. Lambraki-Plaka, El Greco-The Greek, 54
* M. Tazartes, El Greco, 122
- M. Lambraki-Plaka, El Greco-The Greek, 54
- "Greco, El". Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2002.
- M. Lambraki-Plaka, El Greco-The Greek, 55
- M. Lambraki-Plaka, El Greco-The Greek, 55–56
- R. Byron, Greco: The Epilogue to Byzantine Culture, 160–174
- H.E Wethey, El Greco and his School, II, 56, 80, and 97
* F. Philipp, El Greco's Entombment, 76
- Hagen, Rose-Marie; Hagen, Reiner (2003). What Great Paintings Say 2. Taschen. ISBN 3-8228-2100-4.
- Philipp, Franz (1981). "El Greco's Entombment of the Count of Orgaz and Spanish Medieval Tomb Art". Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 44) 44: 76–89. doi:10.2307/751052. JSTOR 751052.
- Information leaf: "The Burial of The Count of Orgaz and the Church of Santo Tomé in Toledo". Retrieved 2008-06-19.
- 'Two Paintings and a Sceptic', lecture by Stewart Sutherland linking this painting to 'Guernica' by Picasso through the question of religious faith, given at Gresham College, 26 February 2008 (available in text, audio and video formats).
- 'The Burial of the Count of Orgaz' – Analysis and Critical Reception