The central incident in El Greco’s painting, ”The Burial of Count Orgaz” is a vulgar and morally pointless miracle. The painting was done to remind a reluctant parish of its feudal duty. Most of the proceedings preceding and surrounding the execution of the work smell of money; literally to high heaven. Yet the work became, in the hands of El Greco, a great mystical masterpiece and a vivid image of several crises.
In terms of art history, here is one of the high points of the sixteenth century mannerist style, with its warping of a classical language into unclassical statements. The story behind the painting is simple enough. Don Gonzalez Ruiz of Toledo was not actually a count, but a pious man of some importance in Castile at the beginning of the fourteenth-century. At his funeral a venerable Saint Augustine and a boyish Saint Stephen are said to have miraculously appeared to lower him into his tomb. The ecclesiastical authorities decided in 1586 to remind everyone of the miracle by having it depicted five meters high in a chapel in Santo Tome. El Greco haggled for the fee and settled for twelve hundred ducats.
The lower section of the painting, in which Toledans could enjoy spotting portraits of their contemporaries, was an immediate popular success. The upper section, in which an angel carries the infant soul of Count Orgaz into an unconventional heaven, failed to please academic critics and the public paying general admission. During succeeding generations the whole work, along with El Greco’s other achievements, gradually sank into a neglect from which it did not emerge until the twentieth century. In the 1890′s the canvas was hanging like a rag in its dusty niche in Santo Tome. Those Toledans who knew of its existence were inclined to dismiss the painter as a madman.
The alleged madman in 1586 could have been said to have an eye for women that could not be called lively. All of the mourners for Count Orgaz are men. This masculine emphasis is apparent in El Greco’s work as a whole , although rarely to this degree. It should be remembered he spent his youth in Crete and was in the midst of spending his last thirty-eight years of his life in Spain. In both places, the Arab belief that women should be kept out of sight had marked even educated Christian society. Also, as a religious painter, he appears to have felt strongly about decorum, a matter much discussed after the Council of Trent in the 1560′s had formulated rules for Catholic artists.
However, his idea of decorum stopped curiously short of excluding the male nude. In ”The Burial” he found places for the naked executioners of Stephen on the saint’s robe, for a naked Saint Sebastien to the right of the Magdalene, and for a nearly naked John the Baptist opposite the Virgin Mary. El Greco’s religious austerity had other limits. There was the extremely ornate armour encasing the body of Count Orgaz as well as the brocaded vestments of the two saints and the transparent white surplice of the tall priest.
In sum, the El Greco of 1586 was a puzzling mixture of Christian, Moslem and ancient Greek in his attitude toward sex. And, he was an unabashed materialist, a spendthrift and an egoist who once considered Michelangelo, ”a good man, but one who did not know how to paint”. His ”Martyrdom of Saint Maurice” failed to please Philip II who reportedly objected to the nakedness of the soldiers, among other things. He had extravagant habits and died in debt. The question then is asked, how could he manage to produce the mystical ”Count Orgaz”? The only explanation that is plausible seems to be El Greco achieved an artistic equivalent of religious ecstasy by means of thought that was intense enough to become feeling. He was hardly devout, but was brilliant, quirky and exotic; well read and fluent in a number of languages enabling him to move easily among jurists, scholars and writers.
Many of the elongated figures in ”The Burial” look Gothic as well as Byzantine, and the composition itself has both Italian and Byzantine precedents. The triangle formed by Christ, the Virgin, and John the Baptist is a traditional Byzantine concept. But, the dislocating effect of mannerism is much stronger than any other stylistic influences. The picture space is shallow, overcrowded, and more mental than visual. Strictly speaking, the funeral is nowhere, and the boy, a typical mannerist scene presenter, is vaguely between this nowhere and us. Nearly everything is tinged with ambiguity and irrationality. Some of the mourners look absent, and those who seem to realize what is happening are surprisingly calm.