Crete El Greco

El Greco was a distinguished painter, sculptor, and architect, who was native to the island of Crete. Born in 1541 as Domenikos Theotokopoulos, he spent his early years in Crete, Venice, and Rome, before settling down in Toledo, Spain, and is regarded as a pioneer of Spanish Renaissance painting. While in Italy, he gained his famous nickname of El Greco (the Greek), yet he continued to sign his works with his birth name, occasionally adding the word Kris (Cretan).

El Greco was born in Fodele, Heraklion, descended from a wealthy family that had been banished from Chania following an uprising against the local Venetian garrison. His early life is otherwise barely documented. He began his career in art by painting icons in the style of the Cretan School, while also intensely studying Greek and possibly Latin classic works. By his early twenties, he was already a well-established painter in the area, mentioned as a master of the local painter’s guild and operating his own workshop.
His most notable work during his youth in Crete is the Dormition of the Virgin, painted just before he left the island, an icon only recognized as his in 1983. Described as combining post-Byzantine and mannerist elements, the icon is housed in the Holy Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin in Ermoupolis where it still functions as an object of veneration.

Around 1567, Theotokopoulos left Crete for Venice, and in 1570, he moved south to Rome. During this time, he was as active as ever, described as a “disciple” of Titian, one of the most important members of the Venetian School. Giulio Clovio, one of the last great illuminators and miniaturists, considered him “a rare talent in painting”. Clovio managed to have Theotokopoulos received as a guest at the Palazzo Farnese, the center of Rome’s intellectual and artistic life, and would eventually be the subject of two of El Greco’s works: a portrait of him (El Greco’s earliest surviving portrait), as well as a painting including him alongside Titian, Michelangelo, and Raphael, as one of the painters El Greco considered his masters.

Theotokopoulos adjusted his style after migrating to Italy, adopting many of the area’s unique artistic traits. An example is his adoption of Tintoretto’s elongated human silhouettes, which became one of his most identifying traits. Despite this, he maintained a strong sense of identity and is often considered a painter who is hard to place into any specific school, owing to his mixture of influences and techniques.

In 1577, El Greco moved to Toledo, where he would spend the rest of his life. It was in Toledo that he mastered his craft and developed his trademark style wherein the figures take an elongated flame-like shape draped in cold, bluish colors, symbolic of spiritual longing. Between 1597 and 1607, his workshop peaked in activity, with the Dona Maria de Aragon Altarpiece in Madrid standing out among his works, while he also produced altars for the Chapel of San Jose in Toledo and the Hospital of Charity at Illescas.

El Greco passed away in 1614, survived by his son, Jorge Manuel, who was also a painter and inherited his workshop. He was buried at the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, where he had his first major commission 37 years prior, beneath his Adoration of the Shepherds

El Greco’s posthumous reputation went through ebbs and flows, as the early baroque period saw art adopt styles and sensitivities in stark contrast with those of Theotokopoulos. Even when his skill was praised, his style was panned, with offensive descriptions (including “contemptible”, “strange”, and “madness”) often thrown his way. This changed when Europe’s art entered the Romantic period and by the late 1800s, Spanish and French artists were in reverence of his paintings.

El Greco’s work can be found in countless museums and galleries in the USA, Italy, Spain, and other European countries, while a lot of his icons and altars are still situated in the churches they were intended for.
The Museum of El Greco in Fodele is housed in what some claim was Theotokopoulos’ childhood home. It houses many reproductions of his works, as well as a recreation of a painter’s workshop. Notably on display here are photographs of his distant relatives, published in local newspapers in 1964 in juxtaposition with figures from his paintings.

Two of El Greco’s early works are located at the Historical Museum of Crete. These are View of Mount Sinai and Baptism of Christ, his only originals on the island. Other works of his can be found at the Benaki Museum (Adoration of the Magi, St. Luke Painting the Virgin and the Child) and the National Art Gallery in Athens (including The Entombment of Christ and Concert of Angels, which may have been his final work), while his Dormition of the Virgin can be found in situ at Ermoupolis.