28 May 2013

The Burial of Count Orgaz

The Burial of Count Orgaz, Santo Tomé,Toledo.
1586-1588. 480 x 360 cm.

This is the greatest painting I have ever seen. It is a very large painting -- more than fifteen feet high, and nearly twelve feet wide, and it hangs in the location for which it was painted.  There is a row of chairs where you sit in amazement, a very poorly-dressed extension of the witnesses to the miracle, witnessing Miracle.

The fourteenth-century Count Orgaz was noted in Toledo for his great charity to the poor. At his funeral, Saints Sebastian and Augustine appeared and themselves lowered his body into the tomb.  Notice the saints' tenderness in this detail, the protective shape formed by their bodies  as they lift the dead weight of the body encased in steel armor, themselves encased in cloth-of-gold. The detail will enlarge a little here, but go to the link above to look at the extraordinary details of the embroidery on their vestments.

 Look at the extreme contrast in the sheer fabric worn by the man to the right, the detail so important that you can see how the surplice was constructed -- the central seam, the backing around the neckline, and then its fragility contrasted with the weight of the cloths-of-gold.  If you follow his hands, his left -- turned up and full of light -- points to an open hand, a red embroidery, the warmth of Augustine's colorful robe. His right hand -- turned down and dark -- indicates the Death's head on the robe of the officiating priest, probably Andrés Núñez, priest of Santo Tomé, who commissioned the painting from his Greek parishioner.

At his death in 1323, Count Orgaz, Gonzalo de Ruiz, had bequeathed Santo Tomé an annual donation. This was supposed to be collected from the good citizens of Orgaz as the town belonged to his seignury.  They had, reasonably enough, stopped paying in 1562, but two years later, Andrés Núñez brought suit to have it collected again.  He won his case, and decided to use the money for the chapel.  Some years later, in 1584,  Núñez got permission from his archbishop for a painting, and in 1586 a contract was signed with Domenikos Theotokopoulos.  

The commission specified the burial, the saints, and then the witnesses, which Theodokopoulos made into an extraordinary frieze separating the heavens from the earth, their flaming torches rising to touch the heavenly light, and their hands like flames. (This picture becomes much larger when clicked.)  

The commission also specified the glory of the heavens with an open sky, but the winds of the Spirit were too strong and they have filled the heavens with whirling clouds of witnesses and angels and saints, and pull the torch flames upward. The heavens are not so much full of light as they are are illuminated by the light shining out of the holy ones.

But the astounding thing in this painting is the conception -- and this is not a pun -- of the entrance to heaven.  Theotokopoulos has taken the Orthodox representation of the soul as a new-born infant, though in them Christ holds the infant soul above the dead saint.  Here an exquisitely beautiful angel gently guides the infant soul of Count Orgaz from the womb of the world through a cervix of clouds into the heavens.  Waiting by a person who is dying is very like waiting beside a woman in labor, and the heavenly witnesses turn in the intensity of their excitement at the death-and-birth to Christ.  Except for the only woman present, Mary, who is waiting to help the infant be born.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Diana,
    As I was reading your last entry about Count Orgaz's Burial, and going back to time, Pandelis Prevelakis’ seminars in the History of Art in the Fine Arts School of Athens came back in my memory. It was in 1968 when he dedicated the entire year to his beloved compatriot and I remember him saying that the young boy to the left is Theotokopoulos’ son, Γιώργης Μανουήλ, and in the small triangular white handkerchief is written the date of the painting, but you must add the age of the child to find the correct date! In the group of the Spanish Gentilhommes around Orgaz the seventh person from the left was a self-portrait of El Greco. He named as, πλαγγόνα the infant soul of Orgaz.

    Stella Chrysochoou


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