Daily Dose of Europe: El Greco’s “Burial of Count Orgaz”

I know we can’t travel yet, but as you read this and experience this amazing painting, see if you can virtually be there with me — as much as possible…really be there. We’ve entered a simple chapel in the Spanish city of Toledo. We’re standing before El Greco’s most beloved painting, which couples heaven and earth in a way only “The Greek” could.  

As our passports gather dust, our leaders bicker over conspiracy theories, and people struggle to arrange a vaccination, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is having in-person encounters with great art — which I’ve collected in my book called Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces. And “Burial of Count Orgaz” is one of my favorites.  

It just feels right to see a painting in the same church where the artist placed it 400 years ago. This 15-foot-tall masterpiece, painted at the height of El Greco’s powers, is the culmination of his unique style.  

The year is 1323. Count Don Gonzalo Ruiz of Orgaz, the mayor of Toledo, has died. You’re at his funeral, where he’s being buried right here in the chapel that he himself had ordered built. The good count was so holy, even saints Augustine and Stephen have come down from heaven to be here. Toledo’s most distinguished citizens are also in attendance. The two saints, wearing rich robes, bend over to place Count Orgaz, dressed in his knight’s armor, into the tomb. (Count Orgaz’s actual granite tombstone was just below the painting.) Meanwhile, above, the saints in heaven wait to receive his blessed soul. 

The detail work is El Greco at his best. Each nobleman’s face is a distinct portrait, capturing a different aspect of sorrow or contemplation. The saints’ robes are intricately brocaded and have portraits of saints on them. Orgaz’s body is perfectly foreshortened, sticking out toward us. The officiating priest wears a wispy, transparent white robe. Look closely. Orgaz’s armor is so shiny, you can actually see St. Stephen’s reflection on his chest. 

The serene line of noble faces divides the painting into two realms: heaven above and earth below. Above the faces, the count’s soul, symbolized by a little baby, rises up through a mystical birth canal to be reborn in heaven, where he’s greeted by Jesus, Mary, and all the saints. A spiritual wind blows through as colors change and shapes stretch. With its metallic colors, wavelike clouds, embryonic cherubs, and elongated forms, heaven is as surreal as the earth is sober. But the two realms are united by the cross at right. 

El Greco considered this to be one of his greatest works. It’s a virtual catalog of his trademark techniques: elongated bodies, elegant hand gestures, realistic faces, voluminous robes, and an ethereal mix of heaven and earth. He captures a moment of epiphany with bright, almost fluorescent colors that give these otherwise ordinary humans a heavenly aura. 

The boy in the foreground points to the two saints as if to say, “One’s from the first century, the other’s from the fourth…it’s a miracle!” The boy is El Greco’s own son. On the handkerchief in the boy’s pocket is El Greco’s signature, written in Greek. One guy (seventh from the left) in this whole scene doesn’t seem to be completely engaged in the burial. Looking directly out at the viewer is the painter, El Greco himself. 

This little moment from Europe — a sampling of how we share our love of art and history in our tours — is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book I wrote with Gene Openshaw, Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it in my online Travel Store.

P.S. – Be sure to check out Rick Steves Classroom Europemy free collection of 500+ teachable video clips. Search “El Greco” for a closer look at the Greek-born artist who painted for a Spanish king, adopted Toledo as his hometown, and conveyed religious themes in a memorable, mystical way.