Northern Europe 1500-1600

Portal, Casa de Montejo, Merida, Mexico, 1549

Spanish expansion brought the Plateresque style to the New World. The portal decoration of the home of the Yucatán's conqueror includes Spanish soldiers standing on the severed heads of Mayan natives.

Historical Context: Through marriages Spain rises as the world power in Europe, leading behind Portugal in exploration to the New World. As Protestantism began to smother Catholicism in Europe, Spain spread Catholicism into the New World to the native peoples such as the Mayans in Yucatán. This portal is the door to the home of Francisco de Montejo the Younger (1508-1565) who founded Merida.

The Plateresque style, a Late Gothic style characterized by delicate ornamentation resembling metal work (plata=silver). The lower story features engaged classical  columns on projecting pedestals and sculptures portrait busts of Montejo and his wife in roundels. Upper story is much more Plateresque in style with a central coat of arms and four statues. The larger two depict Spanish soldiers standing on the severed heads of the Mayan natives. The smaller two personify the defeated indigenous population in sheepskin men holding clubs. Ironically, the triumphal imagery is the work of Mayan sculptures and even the stones used to build the house were taken from dismanteled Mayan temples.

Similar to portal in Valladolid

Juan de Herrera and Juan Bautista de Toledo el Escorial, El Escorial, near Madrid, Spain, 1563-1584 (detail of an anonymous 18th century painting).

In Spain itself, the Plateresque style gave way under Philip II to Italian-derived Classism. The Italian style is on display in the expansive complex called El Escorial. The palace was constructed principally by Juan de Herrera, with the aid of architect Juan Bautista de Toledo, for Philip II.

Conceived by Charles V and built by Philip II, El Escorial is a combined royal mausoleum, church, monastery, and palace. The complex is classical in style with severely plain walls and massive towers.

The vast structure is in keeping with Philip’s austere and conscientious character, his passionate Catholic religiosity, his proud reverence for his dynasty, and his stern determination to impose his will worldwide. He insisted that in designing El Escorial, the architects focus on simplicity of form, severity in the whole, nobility without arrogance, and majesty without ostentation. The result is a classism of Doric severity, ultimately derived from Italian Architecture and with the grandeur of Saint Peter’s implicit in the scheme, but unique in Spanish and European architecture.

El Escorial stands as the overpowering architectural expression of Spain’s spirit in its heroic epoch and of the character of Philip II, the extraordinary ruler who directed it.

Juan de Herrera and Juan Bautista de Toledo el Escorial, El Escorial, near Madrid, Spain, 1563-1584 (detail of an anonymous 18th century painting).

The Burial of Count Orgaz  (the Entombment of the Count of Orgaz) El Greco, 1586, Santo Tome Church, Toledo, Spain

Oil on canvas


Blend of Byzantine and Italian Mannerist elements. Intense emotional content captured the fervor of Spanish Catholicism, and his dramatic use of light foreshadowed the Baroque style.

Sumptuous and realistic presentation of the earthly sphere (Venetian), but with abstractions and distortions to show the immaterial nature of the heavenly realm

Elongated figures in undefined spaces

Uncertain light origin

Primary concern is conveying emotion and his religious passion

Unique, highly developed expressive style

Commission: Count Orgaz donated lots of money to the Santo Tome church. However, after he died, the officials in the town ignored his request to bequeath the money for over 200 years. In 1569, a Santo Tome priest named Father Andres Nunez filed a lawsuit and won back the payments of Count Orgaz. He used the money to decorate the church in honor of Count Orgaz and chose El Greco on March 15, 1586 to decorate the church.


Historical-mystical series of evens surrounding the death of Count Orgaz.

According to the story, on the day in which Count Orgaz was interred, the heavens erupted spontaneously and friends and mourners witnessed a sky filled with the images of Jesus, the Virgin, St. John and several other saints and angels. Legend explains that Sts. Augustine and Stephen appeared to reward the Count for his generosity to the church.

El Greco paints both mortals and immortals in attendance at Count Orgaz’s funeral. To thank Father Nunez for this commission, El Greco painted him into the work. El Greco also allegedly painted himself (the figure looking out toward the viewer next to Saint Stephen). He includes prominent Toledan social figures as a tribute to the aristocracy of Toledo.  

View of Toledo, By El Greco, 1596-1600

Oil on Canvas

Landscape painting with a spiritual dimension

Considered the first Spanish landscape

Also possibly the first cityscape

Does not document the look of a particular time in a particular place (as most landscape paintings do)

Only the Church is placed in the correct location—El Greco changed the other buildings’ locations

He does not show what Toledo looked like, but what it felt like

He uses dark, moody colors

Landscape and sky dominate over the city

Just before the storm bursts

Unearthly power and drama

City does not occupy center of painting (city is not the focus—landscape and sky are the focus)

Contrast of dark clouds right behind city highlights the impressive architecture of the city

Historical Context: El Greco was first painting in Counter-Reformation Spain, where religious dictates banned the landscape as a subject of painting

Toledo was the religious capital of Spain

Portal, Colegio de San Gregorio, Valladolid, Spain, 1498

This Plateresque style takes its name from platero (silversmith) At the center is the coat of arms of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

Carved retables stand out on the exterior, the lofty sculptured stone screen bears no functional relation to the architecture behind it. Tracery similar to the Moorish design hems the arches while a great screen with branches of a huge pomegranate tree wreathe the coat of arms. Cupids play among the tree branches, heraldic wild men symbolizing aggression, and armored soldiers attest to Spain's proud standing as the leading militant power. The intertwined motifs unifies the whole design of the panel.

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