My Travel Diary: Finding El Greco in Toledo

Continuing on my experience traveling to Spain two years ago I enjoyed a day trip to Toledo while based in Madrid. Less than an hour away lies this incredible well preserved city and Spain’s former capitol. Elements of Roman, Jewish, Visigothic, Moorish and Christian history are intertwined in Toledo which sits up on a high rocky perch protected by the Tajo river on three sides. I selected to visit Toledo in order to immerse myself in the art of El Greco and to enjoy the historic and spiritual elements of this UNESCO Heritage site creating A Lasting Impression.

Highlights from our Day

Toledo Cathedral

Built upon the site of an old mosque after the Reconquista, Toledo Cathedral is one of Europe’s best. Primarily Gothic, this cathedral took over 250 years to build (1226-1493). The Cathedral also incorporated some Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical styles. It really is a Wow! Besides all the beautiful stained glass windows, elaborate wrought-iron work, and lavish wood carvings, there is also a world class art collection. We joined an in house tour to help us navigate this impressive Cathedral which I highly recommend. In the Sacristy we were introduced to our first of many El Greco paintings in Toledo. Born in Greece, trained in Venice, Domenikos Theotokopoulos —“The Greek,” or “El Greco” — moved to Spain to find work as a painter. He found employment here in Toledo, where he spent the rest of his life, and developed his unique style of painting. The Disrobing of Christ (1577-1579) was commissioned shortly after his arrival in Toledo. This piece depicts the moment when Christ has ascended to Calvary and is stripped of his clothes before being nailed to the cross. In this highly original composition, based on a range of both literary and visual sources, the traditional space has been compressed in order to convey Christ’s physical and mental suffering to the viewer. Christ’s radiating light illuminates three women below, all of whom are thought to be Mary.

Convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo

One of the most important paintings of El Greco’s career, The Assumption of the Virgin, today resides in the United States. This piece was commissioned in 1577 as the central element of a multipart altarpiece for the Convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. El Greco’s first major Spanish commission of which he created nine paintings, five sculptures and the entire architectural framing. The Assumption of the Virgin, however, was removed from the altarpiece and sold around 1830. There is a copy there now. In 1904 the painter Mary Cassatt saw the monumental work on a visit to Madrid and encouraged several museums in the United States to purchase it. In 1906 the Art Institute of Chicago made the bold move of acquiring the painting.

Marzipan, café and Church of Santo Tomé

Toledo is a walkable city as it sits within it’s own walls. Some of the streets may be a little confusing but the major sights are well marked. Just look up and locate a landmark to orient yourself. Our visit was a cold yet sunny day in January. On our way to visit the Church of Santo Tome, we made a stop to indulge in some famous marzipan with a café. The Church of Santo Tome dates from the 12th century, although it was completely rebuilt in the early 14th century by the Count of Orgaz. The tower is one of the best examples of the Mudéjar art characteristic of Toledo. The two upper sections are made of brick, with two groups of two and three windows with pointed horseshoe arches scalloped with other lobed arches. Housed within the church you will find the best known work by El Greco, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. This large painting, a little over 15 by 11 feet, depicts the well-known legend of Don Gonzalo Ruíz, a charitable man. When Ruíz passed away, both Saint Augustine and Saint Stephen came from the heavens to bury him, with everyone who attended the burial standing in awe. The painting features two contrasting parts: the static bottom half with the local townspeople, priests, saints and the body of the Ruíz and the top half, which is an organic, free-flowing vision of heaven.

Santa Cruz Museum

Hidden behind Plaza de Zocodover is Toledo’s most interesting museum and art gallery, Museo de Santa Cruz . The original building was a hospital during the 16th century and was built in the shape of a Greek cross. Besides containing a great art collection and many paintings by El Greco, the building’s beautiful architecture is a draw in itself. The museum has sections of Archeology, Fine Arts and Decorative Arts. The Immaculate Conception, (1607–1613) by El Greco is one of the pieces found here. El Greco’s life and work were marked by a deep underlying devotion to God. He became vastly interested in the new Mannerist movement, a group who disavowed the mere imitation of nature in art, and instead sought to express the underlying psychological aspects of a work beyond its mythological or religious themes. El Greco’s work has also been cited as a precursor to Expressionism and his work also had an influence on the Cubists, most notably Pablo Picasso, because of the way his paintings reconsidered form and figure beyond literal reality.

El Greco Museum and Jewish Quarter

If you are finding yourself fond of El Greco, make sure you conclude your day at the El Greco Museum. Opened in 1911, this museum is solely dedicated to preserve the artworks of the painter, El Greco, and shows his most modern works, including the Apostolate series (1610-1614), which are excellent examples for understanding the last stage of the painter’s creative process. We also viewed the San Bernardino Altarpiece (1603) and the View and Plan of Toledo (1608). In contrast to the partial views of the city that appear in other works by the artist, the View and Plan of Toledo offers a multiple viewpoint and includes a detailed plan of the city, which is held up by the figure of a young man and painted with the characteristically sketchy handling of the artist’s last years. This museum is located in the Jewish Quarter of Toledo, which was interesting to walk through and looks out over a beautiful view of the plains of Castilla-La Mancha.

Toledo Train Station

Your arrival and departure will happen at this beautiful Toledo train station built at the beginning of the 20th century. So much to see and do in a day! We were only able to cover a few of the main sights and will enjoy the rest on a future visit.

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