The Ascension of the Count of Orgaz is a painting by El Greco  (Doménikos Theotokópoulos) 1541-1614. It depicts the burial of Don Gonzalo Ruíz and the ascension of his soul to heaven. Ruíz was posthumously promoted to count, hence the title. Burial is often used in place of Ascension when referring to the painting, but I think the latter term more apt. It was how the painting was described when I first saw it in 1970.

Don Gonzalo was murdered in 1312. According to legend, at the time the Count’s funeral, he was the mayor of Orgaz a city in the province of Toledo, Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine descended from heaven and buried him with their own hands in front of the dazzled townspeople gathered for the event. The painting was commissioned by the Church of Santo Tomé for the side-chapel where it still resides.

Completed in 1588, it was immediately recognized as a supreme masterpiece – a reputation that has only grown over the more than four centuries since its appearance. Some have even called it the greatest religious painting of all time, an assessment I would second. A photo (click on it for a larger view) of the painting is below, but no reproduction can even hint at the overwhelming impression it has on the viewer when seen in situ.

I first saw the painting on the advice of a Spanish friend and colleague. At the time Spain was still governed by the dictatorship of Generalissimo Franco. As I recall, the painting was poorly illuminated by a single bare bulb. There weren’t many visitors to the chapel that housed it. Nevertheless, despite the ambient darkness I was overcome by the beauty and detail of El Greco’s sublime masterpiece.

The painting is very large – 15 feet in height. It’s composed of many layers, starting with the corpse clad in gleaming black armour in the arms of the two saints. behind the body are the figures of the mourners. El Greco used the faces of some of Toledo’s most prominent citizens as well as that of the priest, Andrés Núñez, who had commissioned the work. He also added his own face as well as the figure of his son – lower left.

El Greco’s self portrait

Above the living is the ascension of Orgaz’s soul on its way to heaven. Above this spirit are the Madonna and John the Baptist. At the top of the painting is Jesus. Saint Peter holding the keys to heaven is to the viewers left. To the right are numerous biblical figures and one living ruler – Philip II. The style varies from detailed realism to swirls of abstraction. El Greco’s characteristically elongated figure add to the mystery of the composition. It was this tendency towards graceful mannerism that caused Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon to call El Greco ‘El Rey de los Maricones’. This statement has been interpreted as a homophobic slur. I don’t think that’s what Hemingway had in mind. I believe he was trying find a way to characterize the unique style of grace and line that El Greco alone had. He was fully aware of the Greek-Spaniard’s genius.

                                                         The two saints with body

Both the technical virtuosity and emotional content of the painting are without parallel in a single painting. The Sistine Chapel has a similar effect, but it’s scale is vast compared to one painting. When I next visited the picture, about three decades later, its surroundings had been greatly improved. The lighting was excellent, the painting was housed in a gleaming container that showed it to its greatest effect. And most importantly, it was still where Padre Núñez and El Greco intended it to be, in a church not a museum.

Using words to depict the magical beauty and power of one of the world’s greatest works of visual art is like trying to accurately translate a great poem. They are inadequate. The painting is so wondrous that it’s worth a special trip to Toledo just to view it.