The Painting in the Cup: El Greco

Featured image: El Greco – Laocoön, c. 1610-1614. Oil painting, 142 cm × 193 cm (56 in × 76 in).

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


We saw Tagus’ splendid curve on the valley, and with the setting sun, the city overshadowed us from the hill. We have been on horseback since Andalusia, except for the short break in Madrid. Even though the way to Tagus was short, it tired us quite a bit. What horses reflected was the opposite of our weariness; usually with a rebellious head movement, they wanted to run into the bushes, get rid of the burden, and unite with the soil. Maybe Tagus’ colorful curve seemed astronomical because of the ongoing strong weariness or I gasped because of the analogous multicolored appearance of buildings becoming clear under the hot day’s light. When we passed the river and reached Alcántara Bridge before the big gate, we dismounted the horses, they were pleased. We tethered the horses to beautiful trees before climbing the breathtaking uphill path before the castle walls.

As I climbed the hill, Toledo was embracing me like fertile arms breeding secrets from layers. The most precious gem of Spain…


Shalom[1], ¡Hola![2] and Assalamu Alaikum[3]

What made a city be embraced, and how did it survive against the overwhelming strength of centuries while the bodies are fading away, flesh and bones are meeting the soil? While the city was functioning like a giant heart continuously pumping blood, contracting and relaxing with the rhythm of sun and moon, what actually revealed the intricacy of the city like a puzzle and glorified the city to eternity beyond the ones who faded away?

It seemed like there was a power that granted its somber structure to Toledo, which was established before Christ, and the power protected itself by staying alive in the river. This power helped us carry our bones uphill, which were squeaking because of the friction on the bumpy road. When we reached the hill of Altos del Valle and the scenery possessed us, I couldn’t help but hold his hand. I asked him the questions I thought of shortly before. He was a Moorish who saw each part of Iberian Peninsula and followed dark ghosts without fear, and his path crossed with mine. He rode his horse without speaking since Alhambra, and sometimes nasally sang. He gently pulled his hand from mine, untied the scarf on his head, softly pushed me to make me sit on the stone, and sat down near me.

“The voices of Christians, Moslems and Jews,” he said, “coalesce here. This is a castle where children, who are reborn and open their eyes in the disrupted images of the cathedral, the synagogue and mosques, speak in several languages. It doesn’t reveal its mysteries at the moment you enter but rather confuses you, it forces you to solve instead of experiencing. As you think you are in your own land, it makes you fall from a cliff and roll towards the wild cave all of a sudden. There are many unforgiven sins and many souls possessed with pride. You want to know everyone who passed by to spread the atlas before you. But it doesn’t happen immediately. Toledo means giving meaning to fortune telling by turning the cup over and over again.”

“Where do I find the cup?” I asked.

He didn’t answer and sat down for a while. Then he stood up and shook the dust off his baggy trousers. He gazed at the hill pointed by his bent finger.

“The inner part of the cup is the painting,” he said. “That’s what Toledo will give you.”

I squinted and looked at where he pointed, thought I could reach there by firmly walking for an hour. Then? I turned back to ask. He wasn’t there. The scarf was on the ground, I took it, tied it on my neck, and headed towards the hill.


The Greek Resident of Toledo

The road became steep as I climbed, then it turned into twistedness in my chest. My growling lungs howled, I felt itches in me with hard coughs. As I felt it wasn’t attractive anymore to follow the mysteries by acting on Moorish’s advice, I saw the man’s garden from the low part of the thick, high walls. Interestingly enough, I saw the intertwined cloths he tried to unwind. He tried to spread cloths which were three or four times taller than himself on the ground, then stepping on another cloth, he was twined from the other side again. He reminded me of Don Quixote. My heart sank, I wanted to pull him out of the battle of the nerves.

“Seigneur! Seigneur!”

I couldn’t understand whether he didn’t hear or he pretended not to hear. He didn’t look at me for a while, which felt long-lasting. As I repeated my call, he invited me with a shy hand gesture, I walked back and entered the huge garden door. I started folding the cloth in my hand, he silently joined me. As we ended up with three balls of cloth, he scratched his head and confessed that although he shouldn’t open the balls, he wondered, yearned to check whether each part of the cloth was of the same quality. He gruffly thanked me and asked for my name. I said it. Then he put one of his hands on his chest and gently leaned.

“They call me El Greco.”

He was thin and tall. He had sunken cheeks, but they gave him a noble appearance rather than a poor one. His hair gathered above his ears, spreading from his wide forehead. His black eyes, crystallizing in his eye sockets, reflected the light of intelligence. Though he resembled the witches in search of sorcery with his beard growing from beneath his sunken cheeks towards his chin, he actually looked like a wall worker who was old, buffoonish, and dynamic as if he wanted to show his unsatisfied adolescence.

I asked him questions and contemplated his answers. He was usually nervous and sometimes as soft as a cat. He couldn’t help but go back in centuries and told me stories instead of giving short answers. It was getting dark, I was glad he invited me into his house which looked like a small castle. I didn’t have a place to stay or a target to go. As he told his servant to bring my horse, I didn’t find it extravagant to niche before the fire.

When my overnight visit turned into a long stay, I couldn’t remember how many mornings passed as I used to find him working before I woke up. How many nights passed since the long night he told me his life story or how many streets of Toledo could I learn about? My memory weaved around like an empty page in the wind, I was under the spell of the rhythm. I watched him work at the atelier with sleepy eyes, and in some mornings, I found myself near the walls of the cathedral or a big church. He was working, combining colors, but I was only watching him and blabbing. I was only strong enough to contemplate his dreamy journey in my mind. El Greco gave me a comfortable bed, delicious food and madders, but I spent my days with him, watching the movements of his arms and wrists like a naïve admirer who was captured in his story during my endless visit. What could I say? I was a slave to this Greek who found his home in Toledo.


The Journey of the Child Who Awaked in Crete

How could the nationality of an artist identify with his career this much? Why did a child, who opened his eyes in Crete in the 41st year of 1500, find his eternal heaven in Toledo after strolling through Venice and Rome? Why did he live there until death? How could he be the voice to strings and tone to colors of Spanish painters who couldn’t find their voice after Renaissance? Why did El Greco choose Toledo as the path to advocate for art, standing against the city’s prominent aristocrats, managers, and clergymen?

They forgot his real name. Doménikos Theotokópoulos was an eternal stranger.

I saw a young man who eternized the heritage of Byzantine on Crete’s walls and columns, I saw how he reflected light and movement, how Mary was taken up into heaven, how Magi were worshipped and saw Saint Luke at Syros. The rebellious colors! When he let himself in the peaceful arms of Venice, Serenissima – La Serenissima meant the most serene place – it was the spring of 67th year of 1500; as the Greek colony took refuge in Venice, Doménikos gathered his paints, oils, art, and the irrepressible desire to paint and headed towards Venice. After spending three years among the canals of Venice, he went to the miniature painter called Giulio Clovio, to Rome, and thanks to him, he could move to Palazzo Farnese to decorate the Hercules Room. Il Pittore Greco[4], who gradually became prominent, was the only painter who was called out when the figures in some part of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment had to be hidden from the pope, and perhaps he saved the work from eternally vanishing without damaging the quality.

Taking heart from this, Doménikos opened his small atelier and started producing works under the mannerism of Michelangelo. I could listen for hours when he talked about the days in Rome with a gleam of youth on his face. I strangely enjoyed hushing and wearying him with endless questions, but even if I forgot the ones I asked before, he told me again and again with the patience of a dervish.

While helping him mix the colors in the morning when we carried his materials to the chilly and stony place, I wanted him to tell me about Rome after Renaissance and how his attitude and desire for art changed here. He listened, stretching his lips and nodding. He seemed like a wise man in his black tabard; for a moment I thought he was Merlin and I was his student who messed up all the spells.

“What is mannerism? Why did you choose working in that field? Where did you think these works would carry you?”

He didn’t answer for hours, preparing a story in his mind. Making me work in the meantime, he started telling when he cheered up.

After murmuring a word for a few times for hours as hmm, mannerism, hmm, he gently continued. “Imagine the art environment after Renaissance, what kind of a perfection do you see? Smoothness, sharpness… We can say mannerism is an objection to this. We may call it stylism, it can be easy for you to remember. It is a revolt, it is an objection! The most important representative of the revolt is Michelangelo Buonarroti. Imagine The Last Judgment fresco at Sistine Chapel! You can see it, right? Instead of the ideal image, artistry is a step towards the deformation of figures and unique styles, it is the biggest step in the artist’s establishment of their own style! That was what I followed, a painting in motion instead of tangled and separate lines! The one who looks cannot immediately understand what is depicted, a-ha, this motion results from both the brush of the artist and the stretching of figures or picturing them in various poses. Do you get it? It was a movement against Renaissance’s harmonious styles till that period! It was the biggest door opening to individual interpretation!”


Figura Serpentinata[5]

Doménikos El Greco was off to Toledo after completing his two big works. An El Expolio would emphasize the holiness of the Cathedral with a big painting for the shrine of the Santa Domingo Church. Though Philip II, who came to Toledo with his queen Dona Anna during the celebration of Corpus Christi, liked the works of El Greco, he didn’t approve El Greco as the court painter, but he paid him well for other works, so the painter had lots of work to do and a remarkable amount of wealth in Toledo.

Saving his brushes and colors from traditional forms, El Greco started producing his masterpieces.

We wandered Toledo together, I made him tell the story of each art piece he painted on chapels, walls and frescos. The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice in El Escorial, the Burial of the Count of Orgaz… He felt everlasting anger for King Philip II, and in the Burial of the Count of Orgaz, he painted him among the ones who died and went to hell although he was alive. Apart from the icons, religious paintings were realistic, vivid, and contradictory for the first time; each scene, stage, or portrait seemed to reveal another visual feast either in details or as a whole. The painter, whose Greek name couldn’t be spelled correctly, was the resident and the great painter of Toledo. El Greco settled in his house on a hill viewing the beautiful Toledo. He stayed there until death.

One night, while we were drinking the sweetest wine from Málaga, he said, “The only reason I love this place is not only that I earn here… Michelangelo… He represented his figures as big, muscular giants to provide religious magnificence. However, I saw different faces of religions here, I discovered inflecting the figures instead of subliming them for magnificence, I discovered uniting colors in the aesthetic of a celestial romance. Figura Serpentinata…”

What made El Greco come to Toledo and stay there forced me to leave. How strange!

I had to go on. I had to ride my horse away from the painter who painted all faces very long, including his own face, because of his astigmatism. If I stayed, I would listen to more stories, then I might want to be a part of the story and I might become nothing but a mere weak face behind the crowd in a painting my name wasn’t mentioned. I had to thank him, put a letter for him on my bed to read after I left.

I understood  I couldn’t leave unless I saw The Vision of Saint John The Opening of the Fifth Seal – for the last time. It was perhaps the greatest of masterpieces which made history even if being incomplete. I had to see the painting for the last time before the painter cut the depiction of love in the upper part of the painting which would influence Picasso afterwards and which shows the Christian martyrs wearing welfare clothes on their nude souls and praying for justice against persecutors.

I thought of Kazantzakis’ words while riding my horse which had been resting for weeks on the stony road before the Sinagoga de Santa María la Blanca[6]. I knew how it felt to embrace another place as motherland but still missing the old land. “I was slowly and ambitiously kneading a piece of Crete’s soil in my hands; I always kept the soil with me, grasped and wrung it while struggling hard, like it was the hand of a friend I love. (…) Now I hold the soil of Crete, grasp it like I grasp the breast of a woman who is loved with an ineffable sweetness, softness and gratitude when leaving her. Now I am a piece of soil forever.”

When I approached Alcántara Bridge, a shadow rose near me. I said from within, I saw the painting in the cup. The shadow’s head bent, and we went towards the rising sun, to Salamanca.


[1] “Peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility” in Hebrew.

[2] “Hello” in Spanish.

[3] “Peace be upon you” in Arabic.

[4] “The Greek painter” in Spanish.

[5] “Serpentine Figure” in Spanish.

[6] “The Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca” in Spanish.


Translation: Gözde Zülal Solak

Image Description: The Laocoön is a painting El Greco produced between 1610 and 1614. It depicts a famous Antiquity myth concerning the deaths of Laocoön, a Trojan priest devoted to Poseidon, and his two sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus. The father and his two sons were punished by the gods after Laocoön tried to warn his countrymen about the Trojan horse, so they were killed by sea serpents. El Greco interpreted this theme by breaking the harmony of the Renaissance ideals and moving forward to Mannerism.

The last second of the struggle of Laocoön and his sons is shown; while Laocoön, the central figure of the painting, lies down, looking at one of his dead sons, the serpent gives him the final bite. Laocoön’s standing son on the left suffers greatly while the serpent swoops around him. The scene encompasses the figures of Apollo and Artemis as silent observers, as well as an unfinished and disarmed figure appearing on the right.



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