El Greco

Get Me To The Greek

Can you imagine being so good at what you do that people all over the world simply know you by where you’re from? Maybe in a couple hundred years someone will see one of my photos in a museum and know exactly what’s going on where they’re told it’s one of the best known works of The American. Who needs names anyway. I don’t know if he appreciated it at the time, of course, but welcome to the world of a painter named Domenikos Theotokopoulos, who lived in the 16th century but is still known to most of the world simply as El Greco, or, “The Greek.”

El Greco hailed from the city of Iraklion, capital of Crete, which at that time was controlled by Venice and known as Candia. I always talk about Greece in general being really cool as a place where Eastern and Western cultures intersect in all kinds of places, from language to food to art and architecture, and this was no less true back in the 1600s, particularly for art and painting. One of the things that makes Crete super interesting to visit (I’ll definitely have to do a post about it for an island day) is that while most of mainland Greece spent the thousand or so years before independence being ruled by the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, Crete spent more than four hundred years as a colony of Venice, which means that it has a bit more of a Western European fusion vibe to it than many other parts of Greece. It’s one of the many reasons you should work Crete into your Greek vacation, if you have the time—it’s everything you might love about exploring the Greece that everybody knows, but with some awesome little cultural twists.

Anyway, this same kind of fusion made it a really important place for developing art during the Renaissance, when the Western style of the Italian Venetians was combined with the Eastern schools that were brought to Crete by the Byzantine artists escaping the Ottoman invasion. So if you were an aspiring artist in the mid-1500s like young Domenikos there, Crete was definitely not a bad place to be. Around the age of 30, he packed up his brushes and made his way over to Italy, before spending the rest of his life around Toledo and Central Spain, but he never quite forgot his Greek roots. Even in Spain, which wasn’t exactly known then for its open-minded multiculturalism (this was the time when the whole “Spanish Inquisition” thing was happening, which remains to this day totally unexpected, although it did force Domenikos to convert to Catholicism), he was unapologetically Greek, staying in touch with his family back on Crete, and always signing his paintings in the full Greek, Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος. This being pretty unusual for the time, he quickly became known to the Spanish and Western European art world simply as El Greco: The Greek.

It’s fitting that probably his most famous work has some Greek roots to it, too. The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (which you can see below) is based on a legend that the founder of the Church in Toledo that commissioned it was so well beloved that when he died, Saint Augustine and Saint Stephen personally made the trip down to Earth to help bury him. It turns out that this local Don who had given a lot of money to the Church and the community (enough to catch the interest of some pretty high-ranking saints, apparently) was a Greek! He was a descendant of the Palaiologos family, who ruled the Byzantine Empire for hundreds of years. And so their legacy lives on! El Greco’s works can be found all over the world, so if you plan on visiting the National Art Gallery in Athens or the Historical Museum of Crete, make sure you keep an eye out for the works of this Hellenic classic.

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