Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 12, 2017
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Take me to Toledo

El Greco -- one of Spain's greatest painters had the city at his feel -- now you can too

From the heights above the Tagus River, the view of Toledo is the most dramatic of any city in Spain -- it has changed little since it was painted by Spain's great Mannerist painter, El Greco, 400 years ago.

The skyline is punctuated by the spire of the Gothic cathedral and a jumble of biscuit-coloured buildings spills down towards the river just as it did in the 16th century. Indeed, if El Greco stood beside you today, he could easily point out the cathedral, the church of Santo Tomé and other places where his paintings can be seen.

El Greco's name is linked closely with Toledo. Though he was in fact born Doménikos Theotokópoulos on the island of Crete in 1541, he trained as a Byzantine icon painter. At 17, he left Crete -- then a Venetian possession -- and travelled to Venice. He worked with Titian for several years and by the age of 21 was a master painter. Theotokópoulos then moved to Rome where he is reputed to have publicly criticized Michelangelo's Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, saying that he could have done it better -- and with greater decency.

The reason for the artist's departure from Italy remains a mystery but by the time he arrived in Toledo in the summer of 1577, Theotokópoulos was a mature artist. The Spanish king Philip II had moved the royal court from Toledo to the new capital of Madrid some 15 years before -- but Toledo was still the religious centre of the country.

Not everyone appreciated the Byzantine and Italian style that Theotokópoulos brought to Spain. When a canvas commissioned by Philip II was rejected, the artist was told that "the picture does not please his majesty, and that is no wonder since it pleases so few."

Theotokópoulos fared better in Toledo where he set up his studio and soon became known simply as "El Greco" (The Greek). His art was almost exclusively religious. In the wealthy diocese of Toledo, he received a steady flow of commissions from churches, monasteries and convents. He spent the rest of his life there.

While many visitors come on a day tour from Madrid, Toledo deserves more. Like most ancient cities, Toledo is best experienced on foot. One of its joys is to wander the narrow streets and twisting passageways after the day tourists have left. Then it's easier to imagine what Toledo was like in El Greco's time, and it is also easier to seek out his legacy to the city.

The great Gothic cathedral is a good place to start. Quite apart from its other treasures, the Sacristy of the cathedral contains a series of paintings of the apostles by El Greco as well as El Expolio (Christ stripped of his raiment) which the artist completed soon after he arrived in the city.

From the cathedral it's a short walk to the church of Santo Tomé and El Greco's greatest masterpiece, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. Still in its original setting, the elements to be included in the painting were precisely specified in El Greco's contract with the parish priest of Santo Tomé.

The artist was to show the burial of the Count being assisted by Saint Augustine and Saint Stephen. The burial scene includes a group of local dignitaries portrayed as mourners, while above are arrayed the heavenly host awaiting the soul of the Count. El Greco included himself among the mourners. This painting alone is worth the trip from Madrid.

A short walk from the church of Santo Tomé is the El Greco House and Museum. The artist didn't actually live here but in a house nearby that has long been demolished. Closed for many years but now re-opened, the El Greco House has about 20 of the artist's paintings. Most fascinating is the view and plan of Toledo -- the artist accurately represented the city as it looked in about 1612.

Near the Plaza del Zocodover, the city's main square, is the Museum of Santa Cruz. Among its collection of 16th- and 17th-century paintings are yet another 20 or so by El Greco. The artist often gave a waxen-like hue to the faces in his paintings and in many of them his figures are strangely elongated -- a quality that became more exaggerated as El Greco aged. This is particularly striking in the museum's most famous picture, the Altarpiece of the Assumption, painted a year before El Greco died.

If you didn't see the view over El Greco's Toledo before you started following his footsteps along the twisting lanes of the old city, the end of the day is a good time to do so. Cross the River Tagus to the Carratera de Circunvalación and follow the signs to the Parador Conde de Orgaz, one of Spain's state-run historic hotels.

From the patio of the parador, the massive bulk of the Alcazar fortress dominates the skyline. By turns, a royal residence and fortress, it was laid waste during an eight-day siege in the Spanish Civil War. The commander of the Alcazar, Colonel Moscardo, was ordered to surrender or see his son shot. When his father refused to surrender, the son paid with his life one month before the Alcazar was relieved on September 27, 1936.

If you linger on the patio and are lucky, the pale tone of the buildings and terracotta roofs will warm as evening approaches. Or perhaps you will witness one of those forbidding storm-clouded Castillian skies that El Greco so often painted. Either way, it's one of the most memorable views in Spain.

 

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