His real name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, but as a painter he was known by the pseudonym El Greco. He was of Greek origin, and is believed to have trained in the studios of artists in his hometown of Candia, who specialised in icon painting, hence the Byzantine flavour evident in some of his earliest known works. Crete at the time was a possession of the Doge of Venice, leading him to move to the city, where he worked at the studio of Titian, and would probably have met Tintoretto and other artists of the era.
Around 1570 he travelled to Rome, where he may have met Michelangelo. In Italy he was known as Il Greco, the name by which history remembers him. His Italian paintings already reveal the evolution which would lead him to a highly personal style, in which the primitive style of icon painting is combined with the extraordinarily rich, colourful scenic composition of the Italian painters. Flight into Egypt, The Healing of the Blind Man; from the Mannerists he adopted the elongated, encompassing forms so characteristic of his work. The Pietà, Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, The Annunciation.
No one knows what led the artist to move to Spain. When he arrived he enjoyed some fame as a painter and portraitist, and perhaps hoped to receive some attractive commissions of the court of Philip II.
In 1575 he was commissioned to paint a reredos for the high altar of the Church of Saint Dominicus the Ancient, of which remain today The Assumption of the Virgin, The Holy Trinity, The Adoration of the Shepherds. In these works, El Greco's style reached its full fruition. Between 1575 and 1584 he painted his famous Knight with His Hand on His Breast and The Dream of Phillip II, which won him a royal commission for a major painting for El Escorial: The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice.
From this point onwards he lived in Toledo, where he remained until his death. There he developed a very personal style, of great religious sentiment and extraordinary richness of colour, with luminous effects on his elongated, incandescent figures, almost unreal in their mystical exaltation. A key work of this period is The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. It represents an example of remarkable balance between the static effects of the lower, earthly portion, and the suggestion of movement in the upper, celestial portion. Mention should also be made of the artist's skill in portraiture, in the series of Toledan knights contemplating the miracle. Other masterpieces include The Holy Family, The Adoration of the Shepherds, Saint Martin and the Beggar.
It should also be pointed out that El Greco on many occasions produced various versions of these evangelical or hagiographical themes, such as in particular the series of the Evangelist Saints, and above all the Twelve Apostles.