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    El Greco

    In his haunting painting Laocoön, El Greco depicts a violent Greek myth as if it had taken place in his adopted city of Toledo, Spain. According to Virgil’s Aeneid, Laocoön, the priest of Troy, recognized the monumental wooden horse proffered by the enemy Greeks for what it was: a trick rather than a gift. Hurling his spear at it, he implored the Trojans not to pull the horse into the city. The goddess Minerva, who favored the Greeks, avenged his action by sending two serpents to kill the priest and his two sons. The Trojans, misreading the cause of Laocoön’s death, drew the horse into the city, where the Greek soldiers hidden inside it ambushed the Trojans and laid waste to Troy.

    Francesco Xanto Avelli, Italian 16th Century, Maestro Giorgio Andreoli of Gubbio, Shallow bowl on low foot with the death of Laocoön and his two sons, 1539, tin-glazed earthenware (maiolica), Widener Collection, 1942.9.338

    El Greco’s painting is a study of tumult and anguish. The bearded Laocoön, sprawled awkwardly on his back, wears a look of terror as he struggles to fend off a writhing serpent, jaws agape, which lunges at his head. One son lies dead behind him. The second, at left, desperately twists and strains to keep the other serpent from piercing his thigh. The wooden horse is visible in the background (pointed to by the standing son’s outstretched hand) approaching Toledo’s gates. At the far right, two unfinished standing figures, perhaps Greek gods, witness the action without intervening. 

    By elongating the naked bodies of Laocoön and his sons, El Greco exaggerates their corporeality even as he renders them conceptual rather than lifelike figures. The harsh lighting, heightened by the dark paint outlining the bleached bodies’ contours, plainly exposes the men’s plight and imparts a flickering, spectral quality to their freely painted flesh. The push-and-pull between the taut, overlapping, angular bodies and the arabesques formed by the serpents together with the threatening storm clouds, the unforgiving landscape, and illogically constructed space contribute to a singularly nightmarish scene of upheaval. 

    The meaning of El Greco’s Laocoön remains obscure. The artist’s only extant mythological scene, it likely represents a Christianized take on classical subject matter. In substituting Toledo for Troy, El Greco may have been warning his fellow citizens not to succumb to some contemporary treachery, perhaps religious practices he viewed as antithetical to Counter-Reformation edicts. Doubtless familiar with the renowned ancient sculpture of Laocoön that had been uncovered in Rome in 1506, the famously self-confident El Greco may have tackled the same subject to demonstrate that his artistic abilities were equal to those of anyone in history.

    About the Artist

    A long haired, bearded man holds a whip and stands in the middle of a crowd of about two dozen people who stand or twist, all in a building with columns and arches in this horizontal painting. Brushstrokes are visible in some areas, especially in the clothing and sky seen through one arch. All the men have light skin with a greenish cast while the women and children have smooth, pale skin. They wear dresses and robes in shades of rose pink, lapis blue, emerald green, or brown. The man at the center, Jesus, stands facing us with his right knee bent and his weight shifted onto his other leg. He holds a short, four-tailed whip in his right hand high and stretched across his body. He tilts his head to our left and looks down in that direction at the person next to him. Jesus has brown hair and wears a dark pink robe under a bright blue cloth that drapes over one shoulder and across the other hip. To our left, two men with bare torsos and raised arms lean away from Jesus. The man closest to him faces away from us as he bends over at the waist and looks over his shoulder at Jesus. That man wears a burnt orange cloth wrapped around his hips over a dark brown skirt, perhaps of a toga. Behind this pair are about a dozen other people and below them, two bare-breasted women recline on steps, their bodies angled to our right. One woman throws her head back against her raised arm, her mouth open and brow gathered. The other woman looks up at Jesus, holding one hand to her bare breast, her lips closed. She rests her right hand, to our left, on a cage holding five white birds on the ground next to her. Next to Jesus, on our right, a wrinkled, balding, gray-haired and bearded man sits on the steps so his knees come toward us. His torso twists to our left so he can rest his chin in his hand as he looks up at Jesus. That elbow and his other hand rest on the handle of a basket filled with gold coins. There are several animals around this man, including two black and white rabbits at his feet, nosing silver objects spilling from a pouch. Nearby, a gray bird sits on the step, and a white lamb with its feet tied to a stick lies belly up next to a wooden box. Behind the man is a crowd of at least eight people, looking at Jesus or each other. A bare-breasted woman guides a naked, toddler-aged child away from this group. A stick balanced across the woman’s far shoulder has a chicken hanging from the front end and a basket hanging behind. Another child lies back on the steps near the right edge of the painting. Next to that child, an open book and a loaf of bread lie beneath a table covered with an orange and brown patterned cloth. The scene takes place in a structure with columns and arched openings. Two people wearing blue robes hustle under one arched opening to our right, which leads back to a shadowed space lit with a chandelier. Blue sky and gray and white clouds are visible through the arch over Jesus, where there are also more sand-brown buildings in the distance. There are statues high up on ledges on either side of that opening. The artist signed the work in white paint in the lower left to the right of the bird cage in Greek letters.

    El Greco, Christ Cleansing the Temple, probably before 1570, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1957.14.4

    Domenikos Theotokopoulos, known as El Greco (the Greek), was born and raised in Crete, which was then part of the Venetian Republic. He trained as an icon painter in the Byzantine tradition and by 1563 had become a master painter. El Greco left Crete for Venice in 1568 to study Western painting and was especially influenced by the rich palettes and sketchy styles of Tintoretto and Titian. Two years later he arrived in Rome, where he became intensely interested in the major humanist and philosophical questions of the day. El Greco stayed in Rome for seven years, and even opened a studio, but failed to win public commissions. Notoriously prickly and outspoken, El Greco reportedly offended influential Romans after declaring that the city’s much-beloved Michelangelo did not know how to paint. Soon after, El Greco went to Spain. 

    In July 1577 the artist arrived in Toledo, where he quickly came in contact with a circle of learned churchmen who appreciated his work. By 1585 he had established a workshop that produced altar frames and statues as well as paintings. He received numerous commissions from religious institutions in and around Toledo and private individuals sought him out both for devotional images and for his acclaimed portraiture. He lived and worked in his adopted home of Toledo until his death in 1614, after which his son took over the workshop.

    A fascinating and erudite artist who knew several languages, El Greco was renowned during his lifetime for his artistic originality and his extravagant lifestyle. His large religious works fuse Venetian color and Roman monumentality in fantastic, vertiginous compositions that convey a sense of the miraculous. While closely associated with the spiritual zeal of the Counter-Reformation, El Greco was also a painter-philosopher fundamentally concerned with the artistic and intellectual questions surrounding the means and purpose of artistic representation. His subjective, mannered style of painting, featuring elongated, intertwined figures and non-natural colors, emanated from his understanding that art should engage the intellect rather than slavishly copy nature.

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