El Greco’s “View of Toledo”

daniel adlerI was reading Of Human Bondage the other night after I met a pretty girl from Portland. Philip described the paintings of El Greco, specifically his “View and Plan of Toledo, as those which led him to understand that life is about vivacity and virility.

Only two of El Greco’s landscapes exist today. The one described is in the El Greco museum in Toldeo. The other, “View of Toledo,” hangs in the Met, at the end of the long corridor on your left, as you enter the European Galleries. It is described thusly:

The painter had painted exactly what he saw, but he had seen with the eyes of the spirit. There was something unearthly in that city of pale grey. It was a city of the soul seen by a wan light that was neither that of night nor day. It stood on a green hill, but of a green not of this world, and it was surrounded by massive walls and bastions to be stormed by no machines or engines of man’s invention, but by prayer and fasting, by contrite sighs and by  mortifications of the flesh. It was a stronghold of God. Those grey houses were made of no stone known to masons, there was something terrifying in their aspect, and you did not know what men might live in them. You might walk through the streets and be unamazed to find them all deserted, and yet not empty; for you felt a presence invisible and yet manifest to ever inner sense. It was a mystical city in which the imagination faltered like one who steps out of the light into darkness the soul walked naked to and fro, knowing the unknowable, and conscious strangely of experience, intimate but inexpressible, of the absolute.

Maugham, 435-6

So I went to see it yesterday. That and the Vermeers. I laughed at its majesty. There are little stick figures in the foreground to show the perspective. El Greco moved the cathedral, on the other side of town, to the north end, which is the view from which the picture is painted, which, in Aristotelian terms, substitutes poetic for historic truth. The painting was everything described above — a stronghold of God — not the city, the painting itself, is a stronghold of God. Don’t even get me started on the Vermeers.

By Daniel Ryan Adler

Daniel Adler writes fiction and nonfiction and is finishing his MFA at University of South Carolina.


  1. This is one of my favorite paintings of all time. El Greco was truly of the avant-garde, centuries ahead of his time. In my view his paintings from the 16th century hold an expressivity unmatched until the arrival of Munch and Bacon 400 years later. His paintings still look fresh today I can hardly believe their dates. He was a wonderful anomaly in the course of western art.

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