El Greco's Cat

The painting that bought the painter a house

/ by Svetlana Slapšak

Jorge Manuel Theotokopoulos: The Family of El Greco
The works of one of the most exciting and brilliant painers of all times, El Greco, can be admired in the Prado Museum in Madrid, in Toledo, where the painter died, in Metropolitan Museum in New York, and in a number of other museums around the world. There is an icon in the Benaki Museum in Athens, painted by Dominikos Theotokopoulos while he was still living on Crete, and learning to paint in local post-byzantine style – and also some of his early work in Hania, Crete, all before he left home and ended up referred to as “the Greek,“ El Greco. Dominikos left Crete, his family, his brothers, and his wife, and went to Italy, where he was inspired by Titian and Tintoretto, leaving some trace of his painting in Rome, and headed for Spain, home of the strongest and richest monarchy in the 16th century Europe.


He was not very successful in Madrid. His weird human figures and faces, summarily-rendered textiles and lack of interest in detail did not appeal to the public. Then he moved to Toledo, the religious center of Spain, and although he did not plan to, he actually remained there for the rest of his life. He did not make many friends there. One of his only companions was deaf. They were both on the margins of social acceptability, so they got along well.


Any city with a dozen or more churches was a potentially profitable market and professional niche for a painter. El Greco made his way into this small world. He painted for the church of Saint Dominic, his patron saint, for other churches in Toledo and elsewhere, but also some portraits. The mainly sterile debates on his religious identity are still running: did he accept Catholicism, or he remained Orthodox, and if he did, which was closer to his heart? The real success, limited as it was to Toledo and its surroundings, came with his Burial of the Count of Orgaz, for the church of Santo Tomé.


It is about a local legend: a certain knight from Orgaz, a village in the vicinity of Toledo, was a just and noble man, a benefactor, notably of the church of Santo Tomé. When he died, Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine appeared at his burial, and placed him, with their own hands, into the grave. Postumously, he got the title of a count, and his grave next to the entry to the church became a venerated site of a new cult. A miracle that occurred a generation earlier made the church famous and popular, and the church administrator concluded that the legend deserved some visual presentation at the spot where the miracle happened. El Greco thus got the opporutnity to paint what was to become his best known and most appreciated painting. It does not display much legendary flair: In the lower part, two saints, who look like two ordinary priests, are depositing the armored corpse into the grave, and in the upper part, divided by veils similar to clouds, the naked Orgaz is kneeling before Holy Mary, who is receiving him to the heaven. The lower part around the grave is packed with Toledo citizens. El Greco added his own self-portrait, as well as the portrait of his young son. Everything looks as it would in a contemporary funeral, part of the social life in the city, its urban reality.


The painting became famous immediately. Everybody in Toledo and the surroundings came to admire it. El Greco became a respectable member of that society. He could suddenly buy a house and pay for musicians to perform at his dinners. His family thus moved into a comfortable home with some twenty rooms, including the painter's workshop. El Greco had found a new partner, Jerónima de las Cuevas, mother of his son, Jorge Manuel, the boy from the painting. He never married her, because that would have been bigamy, but acknowleged the son. El Greco's house contained the cellars of the previously-destroyed home of a rich Toledo Jew called Simon Levi, the main city banker a century before. Unlike other Spanish cities, the citizens of Toledo did not expel, but rather killed most of their Jews... According to Toledo urban legend, the ghosts from the Levi's cellar would often disturb the everyday life in the neighborhood.


El Greco was almost forgotten after his death. He was rediscovered only by the artists of the 20th century, Picasso among them. His apparent disinterest in final finish and detail, the long and non-symmetrical figures, the optical peculiarities due perhaps to his vision problems, everything fitted well the new poetics of the avantgarde movements. Freud's psychoanalysis opened new possibilities of interpretation of the painter's personality, so that El Greco became an almost obsessive figure for the intellectuals of the past century. Maybe the best example is the Greek writer Nikos Kazantsakis, who entitled his own spiritual autobiography Report to Greco. At the end of this book, he explains why he was addressing El Greco: he was a free, independent spirit, unburdened by hope...


Some six years ago, a museum was opened in El Greco's house in Toledo. Among other extraordinary works, there is another view of Toledo, not that famous painting of the city in a storm, but rather a precise and conventional baroque map of the town. The stormy one, which so influenced Cezanne and the Cubists, is now in New York. The only surviving painting by El Greco's son is also displayed in the museum. This is an intimate family portrait, featuring the women in the house -  Jerónima, her mother and their servants, and a little girl, maybe El Greco's daughter or granddaughter, most of them busy sewing, embroidering, weaving, knitting. These women are interconnected, constituting a world of their own, the foundation of the home economy, prosperity and peaceful everyday life. The head of the family is absent, he is probably at work in some church, providing for the future of the family. On his empty chair, a cat is perched: only the cat and the little girl are gazing at the onlooker.


The absent father is thus represented by his chair and replaced there by the cat, an ironic twist on the head of the family; clearly, he is not to be taken too seriously, he is a cuddly favorite, certainly not some male authority commanding the family by terror. Jorge Manuel never became a great painter, but he gave the cat a weird gaze similar to his father's human figures – however sneering and ironic. Whatever the public image of the family – and it would seem that they did not appear very much in the public – the intimacy of their home was where a joke on the father and master was tolerated. At least, we know that El Greco's family was full of cat lovers, and that superstitions about cats did not play a role among them. Being cat lovers, they appreciated their intimate world and protected their warmth from attacks from outside. The work by the female part of the household was appreciated in parallel to the father's work outside. Among the possible meanings of this painting, we cannot detect hierarchy, although some Christian inscription is clearly there – modesty, dedication to work and the good use of time. The question remains whether it was necessary for the lady of the house to work, or whether it was a symbolic representation of what women are supposed to do. Whatever the interpretation of this modest painting, it is an exciting testimony of the warmth, intimacy and sense of humor among people who loved each other and were eager to preserve the encapsulated world they created.


El Greco rests among his paintings, in the church of Saint Dominic in Toledo. His coffin was identified, but has not yet been opened. There is a monument to El Greco in the city, as well. But the real memory of what he loved remains at his home, under the sneering gaze of a cat, reflecting the eyes of the figures from his paintings.

Svetlana Slapšak

trained in Classical Studies/Linguistics at the University in Beograd. Retired professor of Anthropology of Ancient Worlds and Anthropology of Gender at ISH, Ljubljana Graduate School of Humanities since 1996. Dean of ISH 2004-2014. Published cca 70 books. Writes academic books/articles, essays, novels, travelogue, drama and translates from Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Latin, French, English, Slovenian and SCB languages.