With Greco: two views of Toledo

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit — perception, painting, pre-modern, modern, post-modern, heaven, sky, simulation, John Donne, El Greco ]


It is Sunday.

I find it powerfully interesting that the sky as perceived by painters (our “seers” par excellence) used to be filled with supernatural beings and is currently filled with natural ones — a clear sign that our culture has effectively  moved from what one might call a theological vision of the world to a meteorological one (with astronomical trimmings under a clear sky)…

And I see that transition captured very precisely in four words, when John Donne writes:

At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
From death, you numberlesse infinities
Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe…

The “round earth” is that of modern science, the “imagin’d corners” those of pre-modern maps – and angelology.


I have to admit, therefore, that I was surprised yesterday evening to come across an El Greco painting of Toledo that featured the blessed Virgin Mary over the city.

I have long been familiar with his better known View of Toledo, which is entirely naturalistic unless you want to consider storm-clouds as portents of a divine presence —


but the second of these images, from the View and Plan of Toledo, came as quite a surprise…

Here is a detail of the Virgin taken from it, to illustrate the point:



El Greco is famous for painting heaven-and-earth as a continuum – his great masterpiece, the Burial of Count Orgaz, catches the release of the soul from its bodily sheath as directly as Donne’s “to your scattred bodies goe” does to the return of those souls to corporeality at the General Resurrection:



And yet El Greco, like Donne, sees both – Toledo under storm-clouds, Toledo under the shelter of the blessed Virgin…

But there is more here, in this extraordinary painting. There is a map of the territory



If I could say in a nutshell what post-modern is, I would say it is recursive.  It recognizes our perceived reality to be a simulation, and is thus always playing with maps and models, as Shakespeare was when he penned the words “All the world’s a stage” to be spoken in a theater whose sign and motto was “Totus mundus agit histrionem” – the whole world enacts a play.

Think of Hofstadter‘s Godel Escher Bach.  Of Escher himself, and his image of himself holding his own small world in a glass sphere in his hand…

Think of Korzybski, and his dictum: the map is not the territory.

Think of Gregory Bateson, who wrote:

We say the map is different from the territory. But what is the territory? Operationally, somebody went out with a retina or a measuring stick and made representations which were then put on paper. What is on the paper map is a representation of what was in the retinal representation of the man who made the map; and as you push the question back, what you find is an infinite regress, an infinite series of maps. The territory never gets in at all. […] Always, the process of representation will filter it out so that the mental world is only maps of maps, ad infinitum.

Astoundingly, presciently – prophetically? – El Greco is already alluding to this, around 1610, in his View and Plan of Toledo.



El Greco’s Burial of Count Orgaz is in the Church of Santo Tomé in Toledo.

El Greco’s View and Plan of Toledo is in the Museo de El Greco, Toledo.

Here is the complete text of Donne’s sonnet:

   At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
From death, you numberlesse infinities
Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold God, and never tast deaths woe.
But let them sleepe, Lord, and mee mourne a space,
For, if above all these, my sinnes abound,
‘Tis late to aske abundance of thy grace,
When wee are there; here on this lowly ground,
Teach mee how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon, with thy blood.

El Greco’s View of Toledo is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:


Here we find no blessed Virgin, no angels with their final trumpets — and yet this painting can be viewed as analogous to his Vision of Saint John and the opening of the Fifth Seal — which owes its power to its “otherworldly stormy light” — and thus seen as yet another apocalyptic scene, one which “recalls St. John’s vision of the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelations … a landscape of unearthly power and drama: a dialogue between heaven and earth conducted appropriately by the cathedral spire…”

3 thoughts on “With Greco: two views of Toledo”

  1. The sky, sometimes in Spain really looked like El Greco painted it. It was … bizarre to me, sometimes, traveling around Europe with the memory of various paintings in my memory-baggage, and seeing the places that the great artists (and some of the lesser ones) had worked in and painted … and it looked JUST LIKE THAT! Provance looked just as Van Gogh had visualized it, the English Lake District looked like every conventional 19th century artist trying to paint the mountainous American west, and northern Italy looked just like the scenery painted out of the windowm behind every Rennaissance notable.

  2. I’ve never been to Spain, and would love to go.

    El Greco just might be my favorite painter and the Burial of Count Orgaz my favorite painting. And I’d love to see the Bosch marvels in the Prado, the Mesquita in Cordoba with its cathedral sprouting from an earlier (and gloriously beautiful) mosque, and Gaudi’s cathedral of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona…

    Not to mention the flamenco…

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