El Greco’s Toledo High atop a hill of granite, surrounded by the gorge and river Tagus sits the ancient and formidable gothic Cathedral and Moorish palace, Alcazar, of Toledo, Spain. Toledo’s skyline has changed little since El Greco immortalized Spain’s religious centre in 1597-9(Cardillac 28). El Greco’s natural talents, his “schooling,” and the flare of his adopted Spain, combined to produce an artistic genius. El Greco’s ability to convey manneristic images that were so original in conception and color that the detail gives a miraculous conception of cohesion to the whole work(Wethey 61). When studying this canvas, however, one must examine the passionate, moonlit sky; the artistic license El Greco took in the placement of the city’s salient landmarks; and what these liberties connote within the context of his time(Brown 244). View of Toledo is one of the earliest landscapes in Western Art; in addition, it is El Greco’s only true landscape and the first in Spanish Art (Legendre 13).
It is a romantic, yet stark dramatic view of his beloved city. Toledo was the centre of the secular and ecclesiastical Spanish world. El Greco was a deeply pious man and formed an instant affection for the city(joslyn.org). Of El Greco’s two surviving landscapes, View of Toledo is essentially as mystical in composition as his religious canvases (Wethey 63). The painting seems to anticipate the impressionist movement 250 years away. Historically, the striking use of such rich tones of violet, azure, and emerald were dramatically different from the realist conception of nature.
In fact, one could argue that El Greco mimicked the “almost psychedelic hues” from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel(Web Museum). Today, these bold color schemes lose much of their impact; however, historically, they were a watershed in painting(Acton 82). The idea behind this landscape of Toledo was to announce the city’s greatness. The painting was intended to propagate the cities place among other great Spanish Cities. The painting itself is not a true topographical representation of Toledo(Wethey 64). El Greco took some liberty in his placement of the dominant structures.
In reality, the belfry of the cathedral would be far to the right and beyond the paintings field of view. Furthermore, he has distorted the steepness of the alcazar’s hill and the river Tagus has moved to the right of it’s actual location(Brown 244). Past the ancient Roman bridge Alcantara, three mysterious buildings rest in a patch of cloud like white. These three buildings baffle contemporary critics and writers; however, recently it has been proposed that the buildings were symbolic of St. Ildefonso’s monastic retreats.
Writers have accepted this based on a description from the biography of the saint by Pedro Salazar de Mendoza, who was a patron and friend of El Greco’s. The saint’s monastery, according to Mendoza was situated in a field along side a hill on the north part of the city. In its random reorganization of the historic monuments both past and present: “El Greco’s picture clearly falls more within the tradition of the emblematic city view than within that represented by the objective panorama of van der Wyngaerde”(Brown 244). In short, El Greco transformed Toledo’s landscape into an historic interpretation of the city. Whereas this work is such a unique landscape, naturally, it is highly expository.
There have been numerous attempts at deciphering the work’s evocative moods: “Davies, who calls the picture a hymn to the forces of nature,’ relates it to contemporary spiritual literature” (Brown 32). Clearly, the same landscape is visible in so many of El Greco’s other works, works that propagated the Faith in Spain’s counter reformation. Therefore, one cannot justly state that this composition’s mood is unique to this painting. Rather, the composition’s brooding quality is inherent in all of his works from the era, for example, St. Joseph with Christ Child and Laconoon (MediaHistory).
The composition lives with a peculiar mysticism which comes as a nervous exaltation from a dreamlike vision. That in and of itself is mysticism: a direct, intense relationship to God. It was only because of the mystic fervour’ of Spanish Catholicism that “mannerism lost much of its character of an art for connoisseurs”(Gombrich 274). Naturally, while the mystiscm was so obvious in his religious works, this view of Toledo takes on that same quality as well. Hence, the misclassification of this painting as being “Toledo in a Storm.” Rather, it is an intensely passionate portrait of his beloved home(Wethey 61).
This landscape was very unusual for both El Greco and Spanish art. Typically, they depicted religious scenes from the new and old testaments. View of Toledo, would appear to be anything but. Symbolically, however, the painting too is a religious work. The religious imagery is replaced by the structures of the city. The Alcazar represents Christ.
The beautiful white light cuts across the building’s facade illuminating it. El Greco used this technique similarly in his Agony in the Garden. While this imagery is powerful, one cannot help to wonder why the city is placed so far to the right and off centre of the canvas. More than anything, however, El Greco learned from his Venetian and Roman years the importance and enchantment of color. The rich green turbidity of the earth reflects El Greco’s attempt at achieving reality(joslyn.org). Of course, though, this reality was achieved with a certain degree of artistic interpretation.
The Castelln plain which surrounds Toledo is barren and clay red (Legendre 23). The above interpretation aside, it would seem that the more powerful and truer meaning lays in the rolling hills and the wonderfully swollen clouds. The viewer feels the wind whipping across the plain of Castile hitting him squarely in the face as he looks across the river Tagus at the mysterious city above. The clouds ominous and omnipresent dominant your mood. There is a sense of fright as you watch the clouds(WebMuseum). Indeed, the clouds and the natural world are only extensions of God’s will.
A theme which dominates throughout El Greco’s catalogue of The remarkably intimate mood of El Greco’s genre is the essential reason “for the inability of others to follow him” (Wethey 49). Moreover, his art embodies the end of an age at the time when a new era was emerging: Galileo studied the heavens with his telescope, Jean Beguin became the first published Chemist, the Globe Theater preformed A Winter’s Tale(MediaHistory).