A great painter of the Renaissance, originally from Crete, undoubtedly one of the greatest figures of world art. He lived and worked most of his life in Spain, hence the nickname El Greco.
“El Greco” was a 16th – early 17th-century artist born in the city known today as Heraklion, Crete. Coming from a wealthy and prominent family, El Greco trained to be an icon-maker as a child in Crete. His interest in art did not stop there. As a young man in his 20′s, El Greco pursued his art career in Venice and a few years later in Rome.
Domenikos Theotokopoulos was born in 1541 in Chandakas, today’s Heraklion, Crete during the Venetian period. However, there is no official birth certificate. His date of birth was determined approximately based on a handwritten note stating that in 1606 he was 65 years old.
He came from a wealthy family, since his father, George Theotokopoulos, was a merchant and a tax collector. For his mother, as well as for his first wife, there is no information about their identity.
Domenikos Theotokopoulos studied hagiography and studied from an early age the ancient Greek and classical literature.
Apart from being a painter, he was a sculptor and architect.
It is also estimated that due to the financial comfort of his family, he studied Byzantine painting with influences from Western art. However, there is no official information about his studies, nor about any of his teachers.
During the 16th century, in the Venetian-occupied Crete, the famous “Cretan school” had already been formed, which consisted of important painters and hagiographers.
The creation of the “Cretan School” resulted in the rapid acquaintance of Domenikos Theotokopoulos with works by Renaissance artists.
From 1563, Domenikos Theotokopoulos, at the age of just 22, was already practicing the profession of a painter.
It is worth mentioning that in an official document of the time he is described as “maestro Domenico”, meaning the teacher Domenico.
In 1566, when his father passed away, Domenikos Theotokopoulos came under the protection of his older brother, Manousos Theotokopoulos, who was a customs officer by profession. Therefore, Domenikos Theotokopoulos belonged to the social class of Cittadini. To this class belonged those who practiced liberal professions or the public sector.
In 1566 he was permitted to sell an icon he had painted depicting a scene from the passions of Christ, for 70 ducats. The most important recognition for such a young artist.
With the money he brought from the sale of the painting and with the help of his brother, he managed to go to Italy.
In 1567 Domenikos traveled to Venice, Italy. Italy was considered the artistic Mecca of Europe because it had produced the greatest Renaissance painters.
Since he had grown up under the Venetian regime, adaptation to Venice was quite easy for Domenikos Theotokopoulos, since he knew both the language and the culture.
In Venice, he studied with Titian, who was the most important teacher of Domenikos Theotokopoulos. He teaches the art of the late Renaissance, Mannerism, and knows the painter Tintoretto.
The “Triptych of Modena” is the first example that shows the influence of Venetian mannerism in the works of Domenikos Theotokopoulos. At the same time, he adopted the technique of oil painting, painting on canvas, and no longer on wood.
From the time he was in Venice, there are only 10 of his works, including “Mount Sinai”, “The Epitaph Lament” and “The expulsion of merchants from the Temple”. The works of Domenikos Theotokopoulos were inspired by the New Testament and stood out due to the harmonious combination of 2 styles. Maniera Greca and Maniera Latina (Byzantine art and Western art).
In Venice, he gains the esteem of both the public and his peers. Because they could not pronounce his name, the Greek (IL GRECO) began to call him.
In 1570, wanting to expand his artistic field further, he decided to go to Rome to see for himself works by great painters, such as Michael Angelos and Leonardo da Vinci.
The year he was in Rome is based on a letter from the painter Julio Clovio to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. In his letter, he mentions Domenikos Theotokopoulos as a “young man from Chandakas, a student of Titian and a rare talent in the painting”. Also, through his letter, Clovio asked the cardinal to take Domenikos Theotokopoulos under his protection and to host him until he stood up.
Domenikos Theotokopoulos found himself in the artistic environment he wanted and suited. His favorite subject while in Rome was “The Boy Who Lights a Candle”. He had painted this work in many versions and as it was his favorite he never sold it.
In Rome, El Greco began establishing himself as a well known and successful artist. What made him stand out from the rest was his altered style and individualistic approach to painting religious topics. El Greco’s style does appear to have Byzantine origins with perhaps some influence from various renaissance masters prior to his time, although these claims are argued by some. El Greco is especially known for being a huge critic of Michelangelo’s work, down-playing Michelangelo’s abilities as a painter.
He even extended an offer to Pope Pius V to paint over Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel, which was obviously rejected. El Greco’s unconventional artistic beliefs resulted in the acquisition of many enemies in Rome. El Greco migrated to Madrid and soon after Toledo Spain were he resided for the remainder of his life.
It was in Spain where El Greco created most of his well-known pieces and acquired his famous nickname.
Toledo, a small town in Spain, with a strong sense of mysticism and religious obsession, was the place where Domenikos Theotokopoulos was able to harmonize perfectly. His inner world found the right climate to express himself freely and creatively. He also managed to shape his personal and unsurpassed style.
His friendship with Castilla, the son of the dean of the Cathedral of Toledo, led to large and important art commissions that secured his reputation as a master. These commissions resulted in a variety of works for various chapels and monasteries throughout Spain. Some of his better-known works include but aren’t limited to “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz”, “The Virgin of the Immaculate”, “The Resurrection”, etc. Although Toledo Spain was considered home by a mature El Greco, it is undeniably known that he never lost touch with his Greek origins. Until his death, El Greco signed every painting with his real name, Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος (Dominikos Theotokopoulos).
A masterpiece by Domenikos Theotokopoulos is the painting “The burial of the Earl of Orgaz”. He worked on this painting for 2 years and represents the burial of Gonzalo Ruiz who was known as the Earl of Orgaz. The work stands out for the power and the scenographic sense that its viewer feels.
In 1587 the king of Spain commissioned him to paint the work “Worship of the name of Jesus”. Having been pleased with the work of Domenikos Theotokopoulos, the king instructs him “The martyrdom of St. Mauritius ” for Bank of the Church of the Escorial.
In 1600 he undertook to paint a portrait of Cardinal Fernando Nino de Guevara.
“The Martyrdom of Christ”, “The Resurrection of the Savior”, “The Holy Trinity” and ” Laocoön ” are some of his great paintings.
The last big project undertaken by Domenikos Theotokopoulos was for the Pedro Salazar De Mendoza hospital. It consisted of the “Baptism of Christ”, the “Evangelism” and the “Vision of John”. However, he never managed to complete it, because, on April 7, 1614, he passed away at the age of 73.
Studies presented him as an eccentric but expressive of the Spanish soul. Other studies describe him as a “painter with a Byzantine heart and Italian education”.
However, Domenikos Theotokopoulos never forgot his Greek origin. To a question about his origin he answered characteristically:
For me, I would only like to be Greek. In Crete I dreamed of Italy, in Italy I dreamed of Spain. Now it seems to me that I should wish to return to Crete.
Domenikos Theotokopoulos remained in obscurity for many years, while his works in Italy and Spain were considered works of a madman.
From the beginning of the 20th century, his work began to be recognized and today he is considered one of the leading visual artists of all time.
From 1902 onwards, large exhibitions of his works have followed all over the world, while many books have been written dedicated to Domenikos Theotokopoulos.