What’s the story behind El Greco’s painting Laocoon?
- A Spanish Trojan War
- The vengeance of Laocoon’s broken vow
- 300 years ahead of his time
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The Trojan horse story includes an anguished priest named Laocoon. Artists through the ages love to portray his Greek myth. But this eerie El Greco painting from 1610 is my favorite. There’s a poetic union present. A Greek myth set in Toledo, Spain radiates with El Greco’s Catholic ideals. It’s a braid of opposites.
That’s one reason why the scene doesn’t make intellectual sense. After all, this story transpired during the Trojan War. It happened in Troy, not Toledo. The literary versions of Laocoon‘s legend in The Iliad and The Aeneid outlay many details. So, the story specifics are familiar, even if not well-known.
Much like his counterpart, Cassandra, Laocoon was a bad news messenger. A prophetic Trojan priestess, the gods cursed Cassandra with a doubting audience. Nobody believed her. Laocoon also prophesied as a priest for the Trojans. The Greek gods didn’t like his message and sent a serpent to attack him and his sons. That’s the scene El Greco painted in this masterpiece. But with Doménikos Theotokópoulos (El Greco’s actual name) it’s rare that what you see is what you get.
That’s what I love about El Greco. He presents implicit rather than explicit stories. It’s why his work’s often cited as a precursor to Expressionism. Laocoon illustrates this to perfection. Its anguished swirls envelop the piece with emotion. They’re most prevalent as white whooshes in the sky, rocks, and figures. The sky feels ephemeral and insubstantial. His rocks and bodies match with this same changeable quality. It makes them seem unreal. This story’s more allegory than history.
Brothers Beware of Serpents
This narrative fiction also frees El Greco to tell the tale as he wishes. The painter places a distinct horse near the painting’s center. This helps viewers nail down the event. Aha! We recognize this reference. A steed along with the painting title points to the Trojan War. Laocoon predicted danger for the wood stallion at Troy’s gates. He warned the Trojans not to let the horse inside the city. In The Iliad and The Aeneid the Greek gods punished the priest for this prophecy. After all, Greek soldiers hid inside the wooden horse.
But El Greco heard about this Greek myth from Arctinus of Miletus. This earlier version plays as less political. The gods aren’t on the Greeks’ side in this story. Instead, Apollo punishes Laocoon for having children. He broke a priest’s vow of celibacy. Laocoon’s two sons are living proof of this betrayal. The painter torments these boys alongside their father in the piece. On our left, one son seems to dance as he wrestles the serpent. His brother already lies dead on the rocks nearby. So, he knows what’s at stake. That’s why his eyes gaze into the sky as if to beseech the gods for mercy.
The painter creates a circular tension with this image. This serpent makes a ring of suspense next to the son’s taut body. Which he also outlined in a black band, much like the one around his father. But the serpent has no such outline. This pulse of darkness surrounding them points to looming death. We know from the myth that they both die. El Greco emphasized this – tracing their bloodless stark bodies in black. These details also bring a sense of dread to the scene. Viewers sense the inevitability of Laocoon’s demise.
El Greco painted this masterpiece circa 1610 in Spain. It was during the Spanish Catholic Counter Reformation. The painter was a hardcore Catholic man – with beliefs verging on orthodoxy. This comes through in his take on Laocoon’s Greek myth. He sets the scene in modern Toledo, Spain rather than Troy. It’s a Catholic city. El Greco portrays the vengeance of gods against transgressing mortals. The painting reeks with Laocoon’s guilt and torment. In reality there is no such place as a Spanish Troy. But this painter cares more for resonance than facts. Because he’s the master, El Greco, it’s unmistakable what he meant us to feel here. The powerful allegory of anguish.
Laocoon – FAQs
Why is Laocoon by El Greco an important painting?
Laocoon set a precedent for Mannerism and Expressionism in painting. El Greco was ahead of his time. 1610, when he painted this masterpiece sat at the heart of the Spanish Renaissance. But this distinctive work opposes Renaissance ideals.
El Greco distorts reality and counters the harmonious compositions typical of his time. His wild brushwork and awkward figures unnerve viewers. This adds to the emotional tension and imbalance of the masterpiece.
As a result, El Greco, and Laocoon in particular, stand out in art history as a precursor to both Cubism and Expressionism. That means he was about three hundred years ahead of his time.
Was El Greco a Spanish Painter or a Greek Painter?
The name El Greco actually means “the Greek”. This was the nickname for Domḗnikos Theotokópoulos because many found his full name challenging to pronounce. In his twenties he lived in Italy. Then in 1577, at 36 years old, he moved to Toledo, Spain where he lived out the rest of his days.
El Greco may have been of Greek heritage. But he was a major contributor during the Spanish Renaissance. In fact, his most significant artworks portray his city, Toledo. For this reason, El Greco is often considered both a Greek and Spanish painter.
How has the Laocoon painting by El Greco changed since 1610?
The masterpiece Laocoon suffered an overpainting after El Greco’s death. It went through several alterations. This included loincloth additions to the standing frontal nudes. The overpainter also obscured the odd second head on the figure at our far right.
Luckily, these changes were reversed at a later date. So, the Laocoon that we see today is back to El Greco’s original, riveting vision. Next time you visit the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. it’s worth stopping by this magnificent canvas.
ENJOYED THIS Laocoon ANALYSIS?
Check out these other essays on Spanish painters.
See Laocoon at thee National Gallery of Art
Kleiner, Fred S., and Helen Gardner. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: a Global History. Boston, MA: Thomas/Wadsworth, 2009.
Beckett, Sister Wendy. The Story of Painting. New York, NY: Dorling Kindersley, 2nd edition, 2000.
N. Hamerman (12 April 2003). “El Greco Paintings Lead Toward “City of God””. catholicherald.com.
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Waldemar Januszczak (Ed), Techniques of the World’s Great Painters, Chartwell, New Jersey, 1980
Get in touch with your inner El Greco – NY Times Article