“The Burial of the Count of Orgaz”, El Greco, c.1586-88, Church of San Tomé, Toldeo. You can see this picture in higher resolution at
The funeral of the Lord of Orgaz Gonzalo Ruiz de Toledo, had taken place over 250 years before El Greco was commissioned to paint it. The deceased had rebuilt the ancient church and had committed the leaders of Orgaz to pay alms each year to the Parish of San Tomé in Toledo. The alms specified were 2 rams, 16 hens, 2 skins of wine, 2 loads of timber, as well as a sum of money. In 1551 they stopped paying. The parish priest took them to court in 1564 and won in 1569. It was he who commissioned this painting. He is shown presiding over the burial. In fact the painting shows a tradition which had been handed down about the funeral. It said that such was the holiness of Don Gonzalo that Saint Lawrence the Deacon and Saint Augustine, the Bishop, descended from heaven to assist in his burial.
El Greco shows the noblemen of Toledo gathered for the burial. Against the black band of their clothes the eye is caught by the bright golden vestments of the Bishop and Deacon. The white surplice of parish priest shimmers echoing of the heavenly clouds above. The painting is hung above the actual grave near the entrance to the church, so that someone entering or leaving might think that the funeral was actually taking place. Certainly, it will call to mind other burials. In fact El Greco is evoking more than the reality of a particular burial. The line of noble men suggest a procession which was held each year on the Feast of the Church’s patron St Thomas. The posture of his corpse evokes the dead Christ as seen in so many depictions of his burial. But unlike Christ the dead Don Gonzalo is not wrapped in a shroud but wears the armour of a knight. This is deliberate. It is rather the sculpture you might find on the tomb of a knight. Don Gonzalo was noted for his charity, and so this virtue is represented by the Deacon Lawrence. He had founded an Augustinian house and so this is why St Augustine is in attendance. El Greco was a parishioner at San Tomé. The painting speaks of the man as he lived and his legacy which El Greco himself experienced. Above the burial scene, we see a light-filled heaven with Jesus enthroned on high, with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist below him. Just as the saints assist with the burial below, an angel assists with ascent into heaven of the child-like soul of Don Gonzalo. Today we celebrate the Solemnity of All Saints and tomorrow the Commemoration of All Souls. No other work of art evokes, so poignantly, the great mystery that is the Communion of Saints, evoking with such tenderness their assistance to us in this life and their company in the next.
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