Artistic and theological explanation

 

The Heaven and the Earth

Just landed from Venice, where the influence of Laicism on Arts had been remarkable, El Greco’s paintings were to be swayed by the prevailing mysticism in Toledo at that time. This painting represents the two dimensions of the human existence: in the lower part, the Earth and the death; in the upper part, the eternal life. El Greco perfectly displays the Christian horizon of life after death, which is brightened by Jesus Christ.

There appear two worlds, which are clearly identified by the style and use of lights and colours. The luminosity represented on the top part is a noticeably pure influence from the Venetian School on El Greco’s paintings. This luminosity makes a contrast with the lower part, where the terrestrial section is displayed.

Following the style of the oriental iconographical tradition, the light arises from the central figure in Heaven: Jesus Christ. Clad in Glory, he is the crowning point of the triangle formed by the figures of the Virgin Mary, on his right, and Saint John the Baptist, on his left. The rest of the characters are represented as lighter
as closer they are to Jesus Christ. In addition, a great deal of colour shades can be found (blue, red, green…)

On the contrary, in the gloomy terrestrial section, the dark world represented is just brightened by six torches held by some of the characters attending the burial. Black and grey colours are almost exclusively used so as to highlight the absence of brightness. There is only one discordant element in the whole scene: the two
figures that are holding the deceased, Saint Esteban and Saint Augustine, both dressed in gold and red dalmatic (symbols of the martyrdom), and wearing gold mitre and chasuble, respectively.

Under this illumination pattern, el Greco stresses the differences between the two worlds, and highlights the path of the cross as the only way to join both sections. Besides, he manages to draw our attention to the Heaven and not to the Earth, since Christ is our goal to be attained, according to the Christian philosophy.

In the lower part of the painting, el Greco uses a very sober and realistic style influenced by the Flemish School, with the purpose of conveying the religious spirit of that time. Most of the characters represented belong to the Nobility and are contemporaries of El Greco. Through their faces, different men’s attitudes towards death are depicted: meditation, sorrow, indifference… Only few characters realise the miracle of the Christ Ascension to the Glory.

A particular attempt to represent the typical attire of that period is noticeable, as this may show the social status of each character. That is the reason why the Count of Orgaz is wearing an armour from Castille.

Some influences of other painters can be spotted on Saint Sebastian’s chasuble: its loose brushstrokes and the red colour usage, from Tiziano, as well as the representation of the martyrdom, which can be linked with the studies of Anatomy carried out by Michelangelo.

The death

Between the Heaven and the Earth, there is an angel carrying in his hands an object similar to a fetus or a chrysalis. They are considered to be symbols of the Count of Orgaz’s soul- which is ploughing through several clouds that symbolise a maternal uterus.

Thus, death is presented not as the end but as the beginning of an eternal life. Death is the birth into a new life. A hopeful vision thriving in faith is projected in this scene.

In addition, the painting layout prompts to think that a prayer for dead is being performed, in which there is a psalm that states: “May angels lead you into paradise; upon your arrival, may the martyrs receive you”.

The Judgment

Jesus Christ acts as the Judge of the arriving soul. The serenity and peace that can be read from his face make us think the judgment verdict may be merciful. The clear Byzantine influence on the representation of this Christ as a Pantocrator is outstanding. This feature can also be found in other paintings of El Greco.

Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist act as soul defendants. Saint Peter, who is located on Jesus Christ’s right and accompanied by Saint John the Evangelist, is ordered to open the Heaven’s doors to his faithful servant’s soul.

The absence of fear and sadness in the judgment and death scenes is surprising. Hope is the most perceptible characteristic of the judgment scene.