9 Works That Defined El Greco’s Career

The Greek-born artist El Greco became one of the most influential Spanish artists of all time and the precursor of the avant-garde movements of the 20th century.

Feb 20, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art
el greco works


El Greco, born Domenikos Theotokopoulos, was a controversial figure both during and after his lifetime, going through cycles of praise and ridicule over centuries. His unconventionally distorted figures, bold colors, and expressive intensity brought him closer to the radical modern art movements like Post-Impressionism and Expressionism than to the Renaissance of his time. Take a look at 9 outstanding works of El Greco that will help you examine his style and innovative spirit.


1. El Greco’s Early Years: Saint Luke Painting the Virgin

el greco luke painting
St Luke Painting the Virgin by El Greco, c.1560-1567. Source: Google Arts and Culture


Domenikos Theotokopoulos, known simply as El Greco (Italian for the Greek), was born in Crete in 1541. During the thirteenth century, Crete—being part of the Byzantine Empire for centuries—was taken over by Venice. In terms of artistic life, Venetian influence brought opportunities for a more diverse education and more structured working conditions for artists in the form of painters’ guilds. As a child from a wealthy family, El Greco had the chance to receive a high-quality education based on Greek and Latin literature and the Byzantine tradition of painting.


El Greco started his artistic career as a painter of Orthodox Christian icons. It is unclear if he was Catholic or Orthodox himself, but the mixed influence of the two traditions was evident even in the minuscule amount of his surviving works from this period. In the late 1560s, El Greco decided to move to Venice.


2. El Greco in Italy

el greco christ painting
Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple by El Greco, 1570. Source: Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minnesota


Venice was the center of artistic activity of the time, specifically for Greek artists looking to secure more commissions and develop their skills. Despite unique opportunities, the city could not distinguish between its many artists. Along with the legendary El Greco, Venice had a dozen other men under the same pseudonym, some of them working in the workshops of major artists like Titian. This is quite a problem for El Greco experts trying to make sense of his Italian period.

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The painting Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple is the perfect example of El Greco absorbing the influence of great Italian masters. The painting itself hides a hint of that: four figures in the bottom right corner represent Titian, Michelangelo, Giulio Clovio (an illustrator and El Greco’s close friend), and Raphael. However, despite obvious influence, El Greco was ruthless when it came to the Old Masters, claiming they knew nothing about painting.


3. Assumption of the Virgin and El Greco’s Move to Spain

el greco assumption painting
Assumption of the Virgin by El Greco, 1577-79. Source: Art Institute of Chicago


El Greco’s competitive personality and his performative disdain for the great Italian masters did not make him the most adored and desirable artist in Italy. Moreover, Italy was already crowded with talented artists, so El Greco decided to move to Spain. The legendary painting Assumption of the Virgin was El Greco’s first work in Spain and the one that brought him considerable success in the country. Apart from the Virgin, the top part of the painting featured the image of Pieta with God the Father holding Jesus instead of his mother.


El Greco’s bold use of color and proportion led many art historians to believe the artists suffered from some kind of illness or condition. Some believed he had astigmatism which made him see objects and figures unnaturally elongated, while others decided the artist was colorblind, thus explaining the unexpectedly bright and intense colors. However, all these assumptions are shattered by El Greco’s secular portraits of his commissioners. In these pieces, he abandoned his love for dramatically distorted limbs and faces in favor of a more conventional style and colors, fully expected in paintings like these.


4. Saint Peter & Saint Paul and El Greco’s Studio

el greco peter paul painting
Saint Peter and Saint Paul by El Greco, 1590-1600. Source: National Museum of Catalonia, Barcelona


In Toledo, El Greco soon created his new studio. Finally, he became known for his unique style, so he was sought after instead of being seen as yet another Greek painter in Venice. In his workshop, he painted miniature copies of his existing works and offered them as a catalog to prospective commissioners.


While El Greco worked with original ideas and compositions a lot, his most stable source of income relied on copies of the works he made before. He painted the same image of Saint Peter and Saint Paul at least three times, adjusting the color scheme to the client’s preferences. However, his most popular subject was Saint Francis, which existed in more than 120 variations, some of which were identical.


5. The Disrobing of Christ

el greco disrobing painting
The Disrobing of Christ by El Greco, 1577-79. Source: Wikimedia Commons


As a painter, El Greco was not good at following orders, despite being highly regarded in Toledo. He regularly ignored his clients’ wishes after coming up with something unexpected and exciting to paint. Not all commissioners agreed to pay for his experiments, so El Greco sued them. In trials like these, the final verdict depended not on a judge but on a group of other painters invited to assess the plaintiff’s work.


The Disrobing of Christ, painted for the Toledo Cathedral, was an example of El Greco’s unconventional approach. During the late Renaissance era, followed by emotionally intense Mannerism and Baroque, Spanish art had a distinctive focus on violence and blood, emphasizing the suffering of Jesus and Christian martyrs. The disrobing of Christ, therefore, was an unpopular subject since it only anticipated torture. But the main offense taken by the Spanish public was not in the absence of gore, but in the layout of figures. El Greco painted Christ lower than his tormentors and such disrespect was the reason for the Toledo Cathedral to decrease the payment threefold.


6. Mary Magdalene

el greco magdalene painting
The Penitent Mary Magdalene by El Greco, 1576-77. Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest


Penitent Mary Magdalene was one of the most popular subjects for El Greco, repainted and sold many times. Despite the constant presence of female figures like Magdalene or the Virgin Mary in his religious works, El Greco’s secular paintings never included women. The only exception was the portrait of his lover Jeronima de Las Cuevas whom he never married despite the fact that they had a son together—although some experts question the portrait’s attribution to El Greco.


Surprisingly for an artist of his age and time, El Greco had no interest in realistic body proportions and anatomy. Under the complex draperies of rich tones and textures, there were no actual bodies, no limbs, torsos, bones, or muscles, only shapeless clouds of smoke. He treated facial features with the same indifference. Despite their abundance in his compositions, El Greco made no attempts to make them recognizable. The same set of facial features repeated on and on in his religious paintings. Some art experts believe the reason was El Greco’s past occupation as an icon painter in Greece. In the Byzantine tradition, faces hardly mattered, since they were replaced with attributes and symbols.


7. The Burial of the Count of Orgaz

el greco burial painting
The Burial of the Count of Orgaz by El Greco, 1586. Source: Wikimedia Commons


One of the most famous works of El Greco showcasing his set of skills was The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. The count of Orgaz, or Don Gonzalo Ruiz de Toledo, was not El Greco’s contemporary but a town mayor who died more than two hundred years before the painting was made. The mayor introduced a yearly tax collected from Toledo residents to decorate the local church.


Two hundred years later, the tax became such a heavy burden for the locals that they refused to pay it. Thus, the parish priest asked El Greco to remind them of their duty by retelling the legend of the Count of Orgaz being so holy that Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine descended to assist with his burial. The painting consisted of two panels. The bottom one showed the actual burial and the top showed the Count ascending into heaven. The complex composition demonstrated El Greco’s knowledge of Dutch group portraiture—the finest example of style allowing to arrange dozens of people in a single composition.


8. Laocoon and His Sons

el greco laocoon painting
Laocoon by El Greco, c.1610-14, via the National Gallery of Art, Washington


The Trojan priest Laocoon was the only one who warned the Trojans against accepting the gift of a giant horse and begged them to set it on fire. As a punishment, the same gods Laocoon worshipped sent giant serpents that devoured him and his sons. Laocoon’s agony was the only known mythical subject to be painted by El Greco, with an unexpected dimension uncovering. The Trojan Horse in the painting is not a wooden structure but a living horse with red hair.


A red horse, according to the Book of Revelation, the apocalyptical finale of the New Testament, was the sign of the Second Seal being open—one of the seven seals representing stages of the world’s end and the arrival of the Final Judgement. The figure riding the red horse is the second Horseman of the Apocalypse, representing war.  Thus, from a pagan priest Laocoon turns into a Christ-like figure sacrificed by his own gods, left to watch the destruction of his world from afar.


9. The Fifth Seal and the Legacy of El Greco

el greco john painting
The Vision of St. John (The Opening of the Fifth Seal) by El Greco, c.1608-14. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Despite the prominence of El Greco’s work during his lifetime, he was ridiculed and forgotten soon after his death. He did not leave behind a group of followers nor trained assistants, except for his son, who never achieved the same success. The surprising recovery of El Greco’s legacy happened in the nineteenth century when the views on painting started to change radically. Expressive qualities of art began to mean more than its consistency with the canons of what was acceptable. Paul Cezanne, among others, was enamored and obsessed with El Greco borrowing color schemes from his works, while Picasso and Modigliani directly quoted him in their compositions. El Greco’s visible indifference towards the laws of physics, anatomy, and proportion could have made him a true star of the twentieth-century Expressionist movement, yet they turned him into an underappreciated master of his age.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.