The Greek-born artist Doménikos Theotokópoulos, better known as El Greco, spent most of his career in Toledo, Spain. His unique style combines elements of Byzantine, Renaissance, and Mannerist art, making him one of the most important figures in Art History.
Any artist’s work is inseparable from its creating environment, and this is especially so for El Greco. Although you can see his paintings in many museums, only in Toledo can you fully understand them. Only in his altarpieces and decorative projects do we find the keys to a vision that goes beyond painting and shows the artist’s true genius.
- Following El Greco’s footsteps in Toledo
- An introduction to El Greco's life in Toledo
- El Greco itinerary in Toledo: the route, in 7 steps
- Concluding the itinerary of El Greco in Toledo
“I was created by the all-powerful God to fill the universe with my masterpieces.”El Greco
Following El Greco’s footsteps in Toledo
I invite you to embark on a journey through the life and legacy of the renowned painter El Greco with this comprehensive itinerary of Toledo, Spain.
From the Convento de Santo Domingo el Antiguo (where he received his first commission) to the Oratory of Saint Joseph (where you can reflect on his skill and vision), this route offers a unique opportunity to delve into the rich history and artistic heritage of a Renaissance master.
A chance to witness the true genius of an artist whose unparalleled style continues to inspire entire generations.
An introduction to El Greco’s life in Toledo
El Greco was born on the island of Crete in 1541. He began his artistic career as a painter of icons (religious art). Afterward, he moved to Venice, where he studied under Titian and was influenced by the works of Tintoretto and Veronese.
He then went to Rome. However, The papal city, under the influence of artists like Michelangelo and Raphael, did not receive his style well… The religious reforms of the Catholic Church, which began at the Council of Trent, also played a role in his decision to leave Italy.
Therefore, in 1577, El Greco moved to Toledo (Spain), searching for new artistic opportunities. Toledo was a major cultural center at the time, with a rich history and a thriving community of artists and intellectuals.
It also had a rich heritage of religious and spiritual significance, as it was a former Visigoth capital and an important center of the Catholic Church. In addition, it was a politically stable city under the protection of the King Philip II of Spain. Therefore, a safe place where artists and intellectuals could work and live.
Moreover, the religious atmosphere of Toledo also attracted El Greco. He was a deeply spiritual person, particularly interested in Christian mysticism. The city was an important center for the study of theology and home to many religious institutions. It provided him with a rich source of inspiration for his religious-themed paintings.
Toledo, the city where El Greco found his home
So, El Greco moved to Toledo for its cultural and artistic significance, political stability, and religious atmosphere. And the city provided him with a safe and inspiring environment to live and work in.
He established his home and studio in a grand house he rented from the Marqués de Villena, in the historical center, near the Cathedral. The house’s exact location remains unknown, as no historical documents record it. However, since the Museum of El Greco’s building dates from the 16th century, it comes close to recreating how the painter might have lived.
Furthermore, some elements of its architecture, such as the large windows, the high ceilings, and the light-filled rooms, are similar to those found in other artists’ studios of the period.
Jerónima de las Cuevas: El Greco’s secret love
While in Toledo, El Greco maintained a romantic relationship with Jerónima de las Cuevas. Though we don’t know much about Jerónima, some historians believe that she may have been from a noble family, possibly of Morisco descent.
They were together for a long time but never married. However, they had a child, Jorge Manuel Theotocopoulos, who later became a painter.
Nowadays, Jerónima’s life remains a mystery. Some experts suggest that she may have died young. Others think their love was impossible because of societal differences, and that Jeronima was kept in a convent after having a child out of wedlock.
Sofonisba Anguissola: Lady with an ermine (1584-85) oil on canvas, Pollok House, Glasgow.
All things considered, El Greco’s relationship with Jerónima de las Cuevas adds a new dimension to our understanding of the artist and his work. It reminds us that El Greco was not just a painter, but also a human being with emotions and passions. And that romance was a big part of his life.
El Greco itinerary in Toledo: the route, in 7 steps
Following a comprehensive itinerary, we will explore the art and legacy of El Greco in the city that most inspired him. We will discover how the culture and society of Toledo influenced his unique style. Immerse ourselves in the religious and cultural environment of the medieval city and gain a deeper understanding of his artistic vision.
Convento de Santo Domingo El Antiguo — Museo del Greco — The Church of Santo Tomé — The Cathedral of Toledo — The Museum of Santa Cruz — The Oratory of Saint Joseph — The Hospital de Tavera
1. Convento de Santo Domingo El Antiguo
We start the itinerary at the Convent of Santo Domingo El Antiguo. A place that holds significant historical and artistic value relating to El Greco, for in a way, it signifies his beginning and his end in Toledo.
Upon his arrival in the city in 1577, El Greco received the commission for the main altarpieces for the convent. This was a turning point in his career, as it marked the beginning of his success in Toledo, as well as the constitution of his unique style.
Further, the convent also commissioned his final masterpiece, The Adoration of the Shepherds, in exchange for a resting place in the church.
Currently, there are 3 relevant paintings you can admire during your visit to Santo Domingo el Antiguo:
1. Saint John the Evangelist
Saint John the Evangelist is a painting created between 1577 and 1579, shortly after El Greco’s arrival in Toledo. The work is a mature piece and part of the main altarpiece of the Convento de Santo Domingo.
It depicts an elderly man (probably John the Evangelist, which the artistic convention of the time imagined as far younger) reading a book.
El Greco’s use of intense colors and dynamic composition is evident. It is an example of the influence of Italian art and has been compared for its terribilità with Michelangelo’s Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli. It also showcases the artist’s skill in depicting the human form, with the figure of John the Evangelist appearing elongated and weightless.
The dramatic, hazy blue background adds to the spiritual atmosphere of the painting. Although the subject is John the Evangelist, the eagle traditionally associated with him is almost undetectable due to the poor condition the artwork is currently in.
2. Saint John the Baptist
This canvas shows John the Baptist, the precursor of Jesus, pointing to the custodia on the altar with his right hand, indicating the presence of Christ. He is represented as semi-naked, emaciated, and ascetic. Only dressed in camel skin and holding a staff with a cross in his left hand.
Compared to the other figures in the altarpiece, his naturalism and body posture announce the later stages of El Greco’s work.
The figure correlates with a preparatory drawing now preserved at the Foundation Jan Krugier, in Lausanne, Switzerland.
3. The Resurrection of Christ
This painting depicts Jesus’ resurrection with St. Ildefonso at his side. Its composition features an elongated triangle, with the focal point on the figure of Christ. Two inverted triangles balance it: one formed by Christ himself with the standard of the Resurrection, and the other by the group of soldiers.
It is one of El Greco’s most moving and dramatic paintings, conveying a sense of mystery and miracles. It is no surprise it has been compared to the style of Michelangelo for its composition, use of light, and depiction of the human body.
The mystery of the tomb of El Greco in Toledo
El Greco passed away on April 7th, 1614, and was buried in the crypt of the Monastery of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, in Toledo. However, there is some uncertainty about whether his remains are still in this location.
Two years before his death, El Greco had agreed to paint an extensive work for the monastery in exchange for a burial spot within the church. This painting (The Adoration of the Shepherds) is now at the Museo del Prado in Madrid and is considered his final masterpiece.
In exchange for it, the nuns granted a burial place for the Theotokopoulos family, stating: “forever and ever to Dominico Theotocopuli and Jorge Manuel his son, and to each of them an altar in the church of the monastery, which is the one that is next to the main door of said church”.
Nevertheless, El Greco’s remains may have been transferred to the Augustinian convent of San Torcuato (now disappeared) after a disagreement between the religious community and Jorge Manuel, El Greco’s son.
In 1619, he purchased a family tomb in San Torcuato. This led to speculation that the remains of El Greco were also transferred there. However, there is no concrete evidence to confirm this theory.
The fact that the location of El Greco’s burial remains a mystery is not uncommon. The 16th and 17th centuries saw many graves that were not marked or recorded, making it difficult to determine the final resting place of historical figures.
2. Museo del Greco in Toledo
Nestled in the heart of the medieval city, The Museo del Greco is a testament to the life and work of the painter. It is our second stop on the itinerary, as it offers a unique opportunity to understand the artist’s context in a deeper and more meaningful way.
The museum is a treasure trove of the artist’s masterpieces and provides a glimpse into his life and historical era. Not only does it allow for a more profound understanding of the painter, but it also serves as an inspiring reminder of the enduring legacy of human creativity and the power of art to transcend time.
One of the main features is the impressive collection of El Greco’s paintings, such as the Apostolate series (1600-10), The tears of St. Peter (1587-96) or View and plan of Toledo (1608). These canvases allow visitors to see the artist’s style and technique and gain a sounder understanding of his artistic vision.
Another critical aspect of the Museo del Greco is its emphasis on Toledo’s political, social, and cultural climate during the 16th and 17th centuries. Visitors can learn about the religious and intellectual movements of the time and how they influenced the artist’s work.
3. The Church of Santo Tomé and the El Greco’s masterpiece
Our third stop on the itinerary, the Church of Santo Tomé, holds a special place in the history of art as it is closely tied to the life and work of El Greco. It is a prime example of the Mudéjar style of architecture, which combines elements of Islamic and Christian design.
The Burial of the Count of Orgaz
Nevertheless, it is best known for its famous work, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, created between 1586 and 1588 in the Mannerist style. The painting depicts the miracle of Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine descending from heaven to personally bury Gonzalo Ruiz de Toledo, the Lord of Orgaz.
El Greco received the commission in 1586, more than two and a half centuries after the events he portrayed. He was given detailed instructions on how the lower part of the canvas should depict the miracle, but only a vague description of the area of Glory.
The Cretan painter included the representation of the Judgement and the acceptance of the Lord of Orgaz’s soul into heaven in the upper part of the painting.
The lower part represents the earthly world, and the upper part the celestial universe. The Lord of Orgaz appears in both. Townspeople carry the Lord of Orgaz to his grave in the lower part, representing the earthly world, while saints welcome him into the celestial universe above.
Therefore, El Greco turned the painting into a theological statement. Into a reminder of the connection between the earthly and celestial worlds, as well as of the importance of leading a virtuous life.
4. The Cathedral of Toledo
If you’re a fan of El Greco and his unique style, visiting the Cathedral of Toledo in Spain is essential. This impressive building located in the heart of Toledo played a significant role in the artist’s life.
As you approach the Cathedral, the first thing that strikes you is its grandeur. It is a mix of architectural styles, reflecting the various cultures that have passed through Toledo over the centuries. For instance, its façade combines Gothic, Mudéjar, and Renaissance styles, making it one of the most unparalleled cathedrals in Spain.
Once inside, you’ll find that the Cathedral is home to many of El Greco’s paintings, including The Disrobing of Christ (1577-79), Saint Peter in tears (1600), and Saint Joseph with the Child Jesus (1590).
The Disrobing of Christ, one of El Greco’s most poetic works
El Expolio de Cristo is a painting made for the Sacristy of the Cathedral of Toledo between 1577 and 1579. Depicting the moment of the Passion of Christ when he is stripped of his clothes, El Greco created one of his most poetic and elevated works.
However, the Cathedral’s authorities did not receive the painting’s composition well at that time. They believed El Greco’s inclusion of the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary Cleofas, along with the positioning of the figures in the upper part of the painting, clashed with the scene’s traditional iconography. This disagreement sparked a dispute between El Greco and the Cathedral, which resolved only after several years.
During this lawsuit, both El Greco and other artists expressed their grasp of the true value of his work. Several appraisers testified about the canvas that “its value is so great that it is priceless… but considering the misery of the times… it is possible to pay 900 ducats for it”.
Nowadays, it is worth far more than that, as it provides an incomparable opportunity to experience the poetry of El Greco.
5. The Museum of Santa Cruz, the old Hospital of Toledo
Housed in the old Hospital of Santa Cruz, this museum is home to an impressive collection of works by El Greco and other pieces from the 15th to the 17th centuries.
The building itself is a work of art, with a two-story cruciform structure and vaulted ceilings in the central nave. The northern arm of the building was once home to a chapel. The museum is divided into sections for archaeology, fine arts, and decorative arts, and visitors can explore each floor of the building to discover the various collections.
The fine arts section is particularly notable, as it features a wide range of paintings by El Greco, many of which were donated to the museum by local parishes. These works span the entirety of the artist’s time in Toledo, from his early years (such as the painting Verónica con la Santa Faz, c. 1580) to his later works (such as the stunning Inmaculada Concepción from the Oballe chapel).
La Inmaculada Concepción by El Greco
La Inmaculada Concepción is a painting from 1613 that depicts the “immaculate conception” of the Virgin Mary, a theme the Catholic Church highly stressed during this time. El Greco’s final style is evident in the image, as he uses intense light and color to convey a sense of transcendence in the figures.
An angel at her feet pushes Mary into heaven in the painting. Their contours flicker, and the proportions appear distorted, with changes of scale that only make sense if one considers the figures to be beyond physical space.
The light and color gain supernatural character, with the extraordinary intensity and vibration of incandescent beings that receive and reflect the divine light, perhaps following the theories of Pseudo Dionysius Areopagite.
The surrounding landscape shows green hills and the walls of Toledo, descending towards a parallel river. The atmosphere of the painting is serene and peaceful, with the use of soft colors and the play of light, which gives a sense of ethereal and spiritual quality to the scene.
6. The Oratory of Saint Joseph in Toledo
Our next stop for El Greco’s itinerary is the Church of Saint Joseph, a beautiful historic building that holds a special place in the city’s history and culture. Nicolás de Vergara El Mozo built it in the 16th century as a prime example of Renaissance architecture with classic elements based on Greco-Roman forms.
One of the church’s most striking features is its ornate decoration, contrasting with the simplicity of its architectural forms. The interior features intricate carvings and sculptures, as well as a crypt that holds the burials of family members.
It is also significant for its association with El Greco, who worked on some of its decorations, like the intricate altarpieces created by this artist.
The Altarpieces created by El Greco
Marten Ramrez de Zayas commissioned the altarpieces in 1597, when he was a theology professor at the Real Universidad de Toledo and patron of the Church of Saint Joseph. He asked El Greco to make three altarpieces in gold-plated wood and four canvases for the chapel.
One of the most revolutionary works of El Greco is the central one, which features a “retablo within a retablo” design. The outer structure includes two large Doric pillars topped with entablatures and semi-curved pediments, which frame the central structure and conform to the shape of the chapel’s apse.
The central altarpiece itself is divided into two parts. The upper body is composed of a central niche with a statue of Saint Joseph, surrounded by two smaller niches with statues of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. The lower body is flanked by two fluted Corinthian columns supporting a straight entablature. These elements frame the main canvas, which is topped with a semicircular arch.
The two side altarpieces feature similar designs, with gold-plated wooden structures and canvases depicting Saint Martin and the Beggar, and the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child, Saint Martina, and Saint Agnes.
The iconography of the altarpieces is strongly influenced by the Byzantine heritage of El Greco and the Counter-Reformation aesthetics. The style is also characterized by elongated figures and dramatic gestures, typical of Mannerism.
7. The Hospital de Tavera
Finally, we reached the last on the itinerary: The Hospital de Tavera, also known as the Hospital of San Juan Bautista. A significant Renaissance-style building constructed between 1541 and 1603 by order of Cardinal Tavera and dedicated to Saint John the Baptist.
Due to the building’s distance from the old city center, it was nicknamed the “hospital of the outside,” as there was already a hospital within the city walls.
Today, it houses the Fundación Lerma Museum, which displays part of the art collections of that noble lineage, and the Historical Archive of the Nobility.
The museum holds several remarkable works by El Greco, such as The Holy Family with Saint Ana (1595-96), the Portrait of Cardinal Tavera (1609), St. Francis of Assisi (c. 1600), The Baptism of Christ (1608) or The Sculpture of the Risen Christ (1596).
The Portrait of Cardinal Tavera by El Greco
The painting depicts Cardinal Juan Pardo de Tavera, the hospital’s founder. El Greco only made three portraits of high-ranking members of the Catholic Church hierarchy, and this is one of them.
He painted Cardinal Tavera posthumously, as he had passed away in 1545. He used a painting and a death mask, both by Alonso Berruguete, as models for the portrait. The painting and the mask are still preserved in the Hospital de Tavera today.
Cardinal Tavera’s face shows deep wrinkles and a pale appearance due to the illness that caused his death. However, the portrait also emphasizes his strong and vital character. He is depicted in a three-quarters profile, looking slightly to his right and standing against a neutral, dark background.
The painting is in good condition and has undergone several restorations. It offers a glimpse into the artist’s skill in capturing the character and personality of his subject, even posthumously.
Concluding the itinerary of El Greco in Toledo
El Greco’s unique style blended elements of Byzantine, Renaissance, and Mannerist art and cemented him as one of the most influential figures in Spanish art history. Though found in many museums, his paintings can only be fully understood in Toledo, where he spent most of his career.
This itinerary offers a comprehensive journey through the artist’s life and legacy, including key locations such as the Convento de Santo Domingo El Antiguo and the Oratory of Saint Joseph, allowing visitors to delve deeper into the rich history and artistic heritage of this Renaissance master.
A unique opportunity to witness the true genius of El Greco and to be inspired by his unparalleled style.