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The Burial of the Count of Orgaz

April 2, 2013

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15 March: Toledo, Spain

Tour groups slouch in front of it all day. For two euros and fifty cents you can stare at it for a few minutes in Toledo’s church of Saint Tome. If you stay a little longer you can hear it explained in Spanish, English, French, German, Italian, and Japanese. Though you hear the story repeated many times – the Count paid for the church’s restoration and asked to buried in its poorest, most modest corner; when he died the parish priest commissioned the painting – you can’t see the thing itself. So many eyes have passed over this canvas, so many analyses have been written, that all you see is what you’ve heard about it. You only catch a glimpse in the brief stillness between groups, when you glance up at St Peter’s two golden keys dangling from a string, just as the security guard jangles past.

Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine have descended to bury Count Orgaz, a charitable and pious Toledo nobleman, and to escort his soul to heaven. Around the corpse are gathered a group of his friends – powerful, rich Toledo men, in frilled renaissance collars – who appear completely unsurprised by the miracle. El Greco himself is in the middle of the throng. As we look at the painting, the painter looks back at us. The spectators, though, are preoccupied. Two or three look sadly down at the body, but most are talking among themselves. Important, worldly men, they appear to be discussing high politics even as their friend is carted off.

Between heaven and earth is a brooding, stormy sky. In the world above figures from the Bible can be seen. Those from the Old Testament are on the left: David, Moses, Noah; Christ and the Virgin Mary are at the centre; those from the New Testament are on the right: St James, St John, St Thomas, and 19 saints too distant to identify. Death becomes a spectacle, a celestial fireworks display. The count’s soul, represented as a child with pure white skin, is being escorted to Heaven by an angel. More angels unfurl satin banners bathed in lunar light. But barely anyone below bothers looking up. There is nothing on their faces to indicate they see the awesome vision we see. Most of the crowd have their backs turned to heaven.

And the painter continues looking out of his painting at the footsore public. We stand with our ridiculous sun hats and sweaty armpits, listening to the guides draw a veil between us and the painting. It was completed in 1586 when the artist was 45, the boy in the bottom left is his son; the Virgin Mary has the face of his wife; it took a year to paint; it is oil on canvass; it has been here, unrestored, for more than 400 years. El Greco seems to be issuing a challenge, looking at us that way: pay attention, see the world behind the world. But how many of us, looking at El Entierro del Señor de Orgaz, actually think about death and the afterlife? How many of us ask: who will watch as I am buried? What will they say about me when I am gone? Where do our souls go when our bodies die?

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One Comment
  1. Awesome art.

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