When El Greco took liberties with the landscape of his adopted Toledo, invented phosphorescent clouds and elongated human figures, he was only cashing in on the 16th century's new wave.

The ability of the painter to distort was the rage, elevating him from a copyist to a creator. The concept was grazia -- "the beauty of the spirit made visible." By stretching their bones and bulging their biceps, El Greco revealed the souls of his subjects.

Opening Friday at the National Gallery, the 57 paintings in "El Greco of Toledo" mark the most comprehensive showing of works by Domenikos Theotokopoulos (they called him "the Greek") ever mounted. The show is also an attempt to see the man as a product of his time and place. He was a professional, mindful of trends, keeping an eye on business, routinely suing debtors.

Beginning with his formative years in Italy, when he was following a home-study course in Western art, it progresses to the Toledo commissions, including parts of larger altarpiece ensembles. Also on display is Vitruvius' On Architecture, the only surviving ancient treatise on art, with opinionated marginal notes in El Greco's hand. "Painting is the only thing that can judge everything else," he wrote, "because its objective is to imitate everything. In sum, painting occupies the position of prudent moderator of all that is visible."

This is the first time in generations that several of the paintings have been exhibited, and restoration has revealed unexpectedly brilliant colors. His Mannerist "Pieta," last shown in 1937, shimmers with light: A personal, less sculptural treatment of forms is compounded by the otherworldly glow of Christ's body.

An assortment of unidentified sitters is balanced by a room filled with saints. Between them, a dramatic grouping of monumental alterpieces over 10 feet high is a divine installation. In "Baptism of Christ," one of a series for the College of Dona Maria de Aragon, the heavens open, and seraphim, clouds and rhythmic light fill the canvas. The flamelike theatrics overwhelm the few earthly elements. With "Annunciation" and "Pentecost" in the same room, this is the show's climax.

But "Laocoon," from the National Gallery's permanent collection, may remain the local favorite. The canvas was found unfinished in the artist's studio after his death in 1614, with two figures on the right undergoing major revisions. It is the only mythological subject El Greco essayed, retelling the fate of the priest who warned against Greeks bearing gifts. The Greek painter's gifts were hardly sinister or dishonest; amending the myth, he moved the setting from Troy to Toledo.

EL GRECO OF TOLEDO -- At the National Gallery of Art East Building, through September 6.