Much has been said about the terms of the commission of the Burial of the Count of Orgaz. But very little have been said of the apparent link that this painting establishes between El Greco and no other than Miguel de Cervantes. As a matter of fact, one of the parishioners of the church where it was supposed to be placed was Nuñez de Madrid , a notorious New Christian related to Catalina Salazar y Palacios, who in 1584 married Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616).
Although there is no evidence that the painter and the author of Don Quixote ever met in Toledo when the latter paid a brief visit to the city in August 1586, as has been suggested by some. Nor is there any trace of an encounter between then when Cervantes returned to Madrid (all this before his publication of Don Quixote or The Exemplary Novels, one of which -The Illustrious Kitchen Maid- includes an impression of Toledo and its people).
Although there was no work by Cervantes in the inventory of the books own by El Greco, there are many parallelisms between the two. If Cervantes mixed idealism with madness and an exaggerated viewer of reality and introduced the technique of a fiction in order to enhance the realism of the main narrative in which the stories are embedded, El Greco likewise combined similar ingredients and in no work more so than in ‘The Burial of the Count of Orgaz’, in which he achieved a true mastery of different registers and language. Much has been said about the realism of the depiction of the burial and how this served to update the legend and make it a lesson for the present. The painting reflects all the paraphernalia of the mass for the dead that was celebrated every year in memory of St.Thomas. Much has also been said about the way in which the overall image -in which Heaven and the saints are painted alongside the bodies of the dead- which echoed the Latin prayers that were said according to the liturgy of the occasion.
It is in the different levels of reality and fiction, past and present, fictitious naturalism and reality as an artistic representation, all of which were elements that El Greco engaged with in this canvas. The Trompe l’oeil effect of the painting is something that must be taken into account when assessing its ‘baroqueness’. Its life size figures standing above the Latin inscription that functions as a tomb and below the Glory of the upper half, which represents both the dome of the chapel and the vault of heaven, and the paintings within the painting -the martyrdom of St Stephen depicted on his own dalmatic and the images of saints that adorn the chasubles of the bishop and the priest – all reinforce the impression of realism within a scene that is clearly imaginary. Conversely, the lack of historical accuracy in this depiction of a fourteenth century event emphasises the canvas’s idealised lack of verisimilitude. The vestments of the clergy and the deceased count’s armour are evidently artistic inventions that allowed the painter to create an astonishing interplay of shining reflective surfaces, which he clearly enjoyed. This is a painting that plays at both the level of reality and fiction and includes (as in Velazquez’s Las Meninas) a painting inside a painting. That is something that both masterpieces share with Don Quixote. J A T