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.
The Franciscan on the left seems to need the miracle explained to him by the black Augustinian and heaven seems largely a tense, disquieting place. John the Baptist is somehow obliged to intercede for a soul two saints have honored, and the straining, quite unblissful audience does not seem sure of the judgement. Disagreeable little angels swim in the stiff clouds. Many of the colours are acid, and the highlights slashed on the dark backgrounds suggest a coming storm. Rules of perspective, proportion and composition are largely ignored.
Behind the loss of confidence in the ideals of the Renaissance, implicit in mannerism, lay unsettling things such as the Reformation, the sack of Rome in 1527, and the Counter Reformation plus the political and economic decline of Mediterranean Europe. In painting, the very perfection of High Renaissance classicism constituted a crisis. El Greco could have found many reasons for not having faith in the future of logic and humanism. Spain,s wars seemed endless, and even with the riches of the empire, they could not bring in enough fresh money to prevent the Spanish royal treasury from going bankrupt. A system of increasing colonization was set in motion to cover the expanding costs of all the European nation states that required an inhumanity to keep operating. Toledo, although still prosperous , was undergoing changes that would bring economic ruin.
Certainly, El Greco’s dissolute lifestyle did not suggest total despair. However, there can be little doubt about the response of his ingenious brain to the doctrines developed by the mannerists as they looked for ways out of the crisis. The central mannerist doctrine maintained that an artist should turn his eyes inward and paint not nature but an idea or design that he could discover in his own mind and that presumably be derived from ideas and designs in the mind of God. For Neo-Platonists such an idea was also an ”inner light” ; that El Greco was interested in Neo-Platonism is evident from the books he owned. It seems safe to conclude that his ”Burial of Count Orgaz”, particularly the upper section, represents an unquiet design he discovered in his mind with the help of his Neo-Platonic light.
The Burial, showed El Greco, the violent visionary, anticipating the rippling, boneless nudes and stormy Toledo skies that would mark the close of his career. However, to interpret Mannerism and El Greco as the product of alienation and fragmentation would be a heavy handed attempt by modern times to remake the sixteenth century in its own image. In all likelihood, the evidence of alienation in sixteenth century Europe, with its patriarchial families, its fraternities and guilds, appears to be remarkably thin. Even thinner is the evidence that Mannerism expressed this alienation in literature and the arts. As always, with a genius like El Greco, the real enigma, or lack of an explanation, derives from the source of the imaginative power that fused his stylistic influences. Still, it is true that Churches and State were refining methods to tax; whether on human capital or material goods, compulsory tithing and volunteer service, the wheels were in motion for the emerging nation state to consolidate its power.