Few masterpieces are as ambitious as El Greco's The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, so it's not surprising the oil painting is considered one of his greatest works. But there are surprises to be found in its history, just as there are "Easter Eggs" in the piece itself.
1. THE PAINTING DEPICTS A LOCAL LEGEND.
The people of Toledo, Spain, loved and admired Don Gonzalo de Ruiz for his charitable life, and he remained generous in death. In his will, the Count—who earned his honorary title posthumously—bequeathed an annual donation to the church of Santo Tomé (or Iglesia de Santo Tomé) to be paid in perpetuity from his Orgaz estate. As the story goes, it wasn’t just the locals who loved De Ruiz. It's said that when his body was buried in 1323, St. Stephen and St. Augustine came down from heaven to delicately lay him in his tomb.
2. IT WAS CREATED IN HONOR OF A LAWSUIT.
By 1562, the town of Orgaz ceased the donations that De Ruiz promised. After successfully suing to resume the payments, parish priest Andrés Núñez decided to create a way to honor the church's benefactor. As part of this plan, he commissioned Doménikos Theotokópoulos (better known as El Greco) to commemorate the church's fabled past with The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.
3. ITS COMMISSION CONTRACT WAS VERY DEMANDING.
Núñez had a strong idea of what he wanted and when he wanted it. In the contract dated March 18, 1586, he made clear that El Greco was not only to depict the local legend of the Count buried by saints, but also include the local tradition of having the town's elite citizens present at the funeral. Furthermore, the painting must also "engulf the space" in the church, leaving no part of the wall bare. To make things trickier, El Greco was to do all this in just nine months.
4. IT'S ENORMOUS.
El Greco rose to the challenge of engulfing the space. The Burial of the Count of Orgaz measures in at over 15 feet by 11 feet!
5. IT'S BACKED WITH BIBLICAL CAMEOS.
At the top center is Jesus, flanked by his relative John the Baptist on the right and his mother, the Virgin Mary, on the left. Over her shoulder in yellow robes sits St. Peter. Lazarus rising from his grave can be found on the far right, while the far left folds in David, Moses, and Noah. On Earth, St. Stephen and St. Augustine in gold finery lay the Count to rest.
6. KING PHILIP II AND POPE SIXTUS V MAKE MACABRE APPEARANCES.
Both are placed in the upper section of The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, signifying the Spanish king and the pope are in heaven. While that’s seemingly a nice placement, modern viewers may not know that both men were still alive when the painting was finished in 1588.
7. THE MOURNERS WERE ALL LOCAL MEN OF NOTE.
El Greco followed Núñez's direction by capturing the likenesses of local luminaries in The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. Those figures wearing red crosses would have been members of the military-religious society, Order of Santiago. While many of their names are lost to history, it is known that El Greco included his friend and celebrated canonical scholar Antonio de Covarrubias in the crowd. At the right of the painting, one of the two priest figures (either the one in the gold vestment reading from a book or the one looking skyward in the surplice) is believed to be the parish's headstrong priest, Núñez.
8. LOOK CLOSELY AND YOU CAN SPOT THE COUNT'S SOUL.
Just above the row of earthbound men soars an angel in gold robes. In her arms, she cradles a wispy human-like form, which art historians believe El Greco intended to symbolize the soul of De Ruiz being raised to heaven.
9. EL GRECO MADE THIS A FAMILY PORTRAIT.
The Burial of the Count of Orgaz contains images of both the artist and his son. Art historians believe El Greco can be found in the line of mourners left of center. He's the one looking straight out of the painting at the viewer. His young son Jorge Manuel can be spotted in the foreground with one hand on a long torch, the other gesturing toward the armored Count. Jorge has been identified by a clue found on embroidered on his pocket square: The year of his birth, 1578.
10. THE BURIAL OF THE COUNT OF ORGAZ HANGS IN THE SAME PLACE IT IS SET.
Commissioned as part of the restoration of De Ruiz's burial chapel within the church of Santo Tomé, the way the painting is displayed makes it seem that the saints are laying the Count in his actual tomb, which lies beneath the painting.
11. THE PIECE INSTANTLY ATTRACTED CROWDS.
El Greco failed to meet Nuñez's deadline, eventually finishing The Burial of the Count of Orgaz in 1588. However, the inclusion of portraits of so many notable men made it a must-see for the Spanish people. The noteworthy subjects may have drawn the crowds, but it was the incredible beauty of the piece that kept them coming and led to a payment dispute with the church.
12. THE BURIAL OF THE COUNT OF ORGAZ WAS TAKEN DOWN WHEN EL GRECO FELL OUT OF FASHION.
Despite this initial outpouring of support, the piece hasn’t always been beloved. In the 19th century, visitors to the chapel would not have seen the large canvas. Instead, they could have found it rolled up and forgotten in the church's basement storage. The Burial of the Count of Orgaz was later remounted as critics rediscovered and freshly praised El Greco's skills and style. Today, it is not only an acclaimed piece of art, but it’s once again a popular tourist attraction.
13. THE BURIAL OF THE COUNT OF ORGAZ SECURED EL GRECO'S PLACE IN HISTORY.
Both the quantity and quality of the piece's plethora of human subjects have drawn raves from art critics and historians for centuries. As Professor Marina Lambraki-Plaka explains, "This is where El Greco sets before us, in a highly compressed form the wisdom he has brought to his art, his knowledge, his expertise, his composite imagination and his expressive power. It is the living encyclopedia of his art without ceasing to be a masterpiece with organic continuity and entelechy."
14. EL GRECO BLENDED STYLES TO DIFFERENTIATE HEAVEN AND EARTH.
The Burial of the Count of Orgaz's heaven employs bold colors, a discordant use of light, lack of depth and the elongated forms associate with El Greco's typical Mannerist style. By contrast, the lower/earthly section is darker in color, less surreal in its details, more bound by realistic proportion, texture, depth and harmonious light.
15. IT WAS EL GRECO'S FAVORITE PIECE.
Reeling from his perceived underpayment for the painting (1200 ducats), El Greco said of it, "As surely as the rate of payment is inferior to the value of my sublime work, so will my name go down to posterity as one of the greatest geniuses of Spanish painting." El Greco may not have been modest, but he was right.