The Burial of the Count of Orgaz by El Greco

The Burial of Count Orgaz by El Greco (1586)

My Daily Art Display for today is the very large (460cms x 360cms) painting by El Greco entitled The Burial of the Count of Orgaz which he completed in 1586 and can be found in the church of Saint Thomas in Toledo, Spain.

The story behind this painting is fascinating.  The church of Santo Tomé (Saint Thomas) was founded in the 12th century.  In 1312 a leading light in the society of Orgaz, a suburb of Toledo, Don Gonzalo Ruiz died.  He was a very pious man and in his will he bequeathed a large sum of money,  in the form of annual endowments, for the improvement and decoration of his local parish church of Santo Tomé where he was to be buried.    On Don Gonzalo’s death, legend had it that Saint Stephen and St Augustine intervened at his burial to lay him to rest.  However the descendents of the Count withheld the money from the church for almost 300 years and it was not until 1586 after much legal wrangling that the church finally received its promised bequest.   El Greco, who was a parishioner of Santo Tomé , was then commissioned by the parish priest, Andrés Núñez, to paint a picture, for the side-chapel of the church, depicting the legend of the visitation of the Saint Augustine and Saint Stephen.  The painting remains in the chapel to this very day.

The painting, depicting the burial of the Count of Orgaz a title the family received after his death), is divided into two sections and was completed in 1588.  The upper semi-circle represents heaven evoked by the swirling icy clouds and angels whilst the oblong forming the lower half represents the earthly section and all that is going on at the funeral.  If we look closely at the upper “heavenly” section we can see the clouds parting in readiness to receive the Count into Paradise.  Christ dressed in a white shroud sits at the very top of the painting and forms an apex to a holy triangle which is formed by the Virgin Mary, dressed in blue and red, on the left and St John the Baptist, also dressed only in a loin cloth, on the right.   To the left of the Virgin Mary is St Peter with the “keys of Paradise” dangling from his hand.  The three central figures are surrounded by elongated figures of apostles, martyrs and Biblical kings and the just who have passed into paradise.  However amongst them was King Philip II of Spain who was very much alive at the time of the painting !   This “heavenly” upper space of the painting is awash with ivoried-greys and a sense of transparency.

The Saints with Count Orgaz

In the lower part of the painting, the “earthly” section, there are numerous figures depicted in the painting.  In the middle foreground we see Saint Stephen (on the left) and Saint Augustine (on the right), dressed in gold and red vestments, cradling the body of the dead count who is dressed in his splendid reflective armour.  We are witnessing the burial of the benefactor of the church with the posthumous assistance of the two saints who have miraculously appeared to thank Count Orgaz for the money he gave to religious institutions. 

El Greco's son Jorge Manuel

Next to Saint Stephen is a small boy pointing to the dead Count.  This is the artist’s beloved illegitimate son, Jorge Manuel, and on the white handkerchief which we can see hanging from his pocket is inscribed the artist’s signature and the date 1578 which was the year El Greco’s son was born. 

Father Nunez

The artist even included himself in the painting and he can be seen just above St Stephen with his hand raised.   On the left of this group there are the officiating monks and to the right are the priests including a portrait of the parish priest,  Andrés Núñez, with the elaborate golden stole, seen reading . Behind them there is a large group of men dressed in 16th century attire, albeit the burial occurred in the 14th century.  These were the most eminent social figures of that time in Toledo.  Custom had it that when a “high-born” died then the eminent and noble men of the town should assist at the funeral and when this painting was commissioned it was stipulated that the scene should include miniature portraits of the local leading men of the Toledo society.

Between the heavenly and earthly planes in the centre of the painting, amid the cloud formations above the funeral, we see, what appears to be a vortex and the soul of the Count, which has the appearance of a child, being escorted to heaven by an angel towards the seated Christ,   who is waiting to receive him.

The Church of Santo Tomé

This painting is a visual triumph as it portrays life, the mystery of death and the resurrection which of course is the most crucial premise in Christianity.  The parish priest had asked El Greco to glorify the local legend of the saints appearing at the Count’s funeral and by doing so remember the good works and generosity of the church’s benefactor Count Orgaz.  It is a painting of great serenity and simplicity.