Heaven on a hilltop

El Greco’s famous landscape ‘View of Toledo’ celebrates his adopted city and the sky above it

El Greco’s real name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos. He was born in Crete (“el Greco” is Spanish for “the Greek”), but he spent most of his working life in Spain, where he was that country’s greatest painter during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

The tendency with El Greco is to talk about how “modern” and “spiritual” his pictures appear. Both characterizations ring true; I have no quarrel with them. On the spiritual side, it’s perfectly clear: El Greco (1541-1614) transformed bodies into attenuated shapes that ripple and rise like flames so that they always seem on the verge of ascension.

At the same time, the artist flattened out the space in his paintings, distorting shapes and proportions for the sake of expression. Both tendencies were hallmarks of 16th-century mannerism, the style that prevailed during El Greco’s lifetime. But we’ve also come to identify them with modern art. So it makes sense that he was deeply admired by such moderns as Edgar Degas, John Singer Sargent and, most passionately, a young Picasso. Picasso’s 1907 “Demoiselles d’Avignon,” widely regarded as the 20th century’s most important painting, was partly inspired by El Greco’s “The Vision of Saint John.”

But one of El Greco’s most beloved paintings, “View of Toledo” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, allows us to set aside all the tedious truisms about the artist. The painting features no dark, watery eyes yearning for atonement or absolution. And although its compressed space certainly makes it look modern, the painting is really too distinctive, too weird, to look like a prototype of anything.

The hilltop town of Toledo, Spain, was El Greco’s adopted home. He spent most of his life there and knew it intimately. Toledo was an important city in Renaissance Europe, boasting a sophisticated intellectual and cultural life. Emperor Charles V had installed his court there before his son Philip II moved it to Madrid in 1561.

In El Greco’s painting, the city and its gray-blue buildings are suitably majestic. But the work is really all about the sky and its uncanny connection with the earth below. The longer you look, the more you marvel at how the blue-black clouds’ bruised, backlit forms, arcing down from top right to bottom left, rhyme with the undulating ridges and recessions of the green landscape.

El Greco painted glimpses of Toledo in the backgrounds of several other paintings. But here the backdrop becomes the main event. The topography and architecture are not completely accurate. El Greco moved certain buildings, such as the cathedral, into more prominent positions to enhance the dramatic effect. As for the sky, did it really look like that? You tell me.

When I’m standing before “View of Toledo,” I love to inventory its waterways and bridges, its shadowy, serpentine trees, its tiny figures splashing in the river or traipsing along the road up to the town. Then, as if tracing a transformation from concrete to abstract, I let my eyes follow the various curving lines — the river and its embankments, the chain of buildings leading down to the bridge, the ridgelines that turn into walls, roads or mountain paths, and the jagged outlines that simultaneously carve out the clouds and evoke the Earth’s curvature.

Is the effect “modern”? Is it “spiritual”? What do those words even mean? All I know is that it’s one of those rare paintings that seems to keep happening, to keep roiling and unfurling like clouds behind your eyes, even after you’ve turned away.

View of Toledo, ca. 1599—1600
El Greco (b. 1541). At Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Joanne Lee, Leo Dominguez and Junne Alcantara.

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Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.