Great Works: View of Toledo (c1600), El Greco

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Imagining the end of the world became popular in the 20th century. At last we had the tools to finish the job, all by ourselves, with no divine assistance. H G Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898) might pin the coming disaster on alien invaders, but the war machines from Mars represent fears about our own capacities. The Book of Revelation could be rewritten in terms of technology. The supernatural was superseded. The catastrophe was now.

We had a new artistic language to picture it with too. It wasn't a matter of showing literal destruction. Images themselves went into convulsion, fragmentation, incandescence. In Futurism and in Expressionism, the apocalyptic became a normal idiom. It didn't even need to carry a feeling of horror or doom.

There was the Berlin Expressionist, Ludwig Meidner. On the eve of the First World War, he painted a series of pictures explicitly titled Apocalyptic Landscapes, showing the city, shattered and consumed. The streets rock. The houses judder. The sky breaks up in zigzags and shoots out in firestorms. To us, they look clearly like a premonition of the coming terrors. To the artist, it was (in part at least) a wild celebration of modernity. Meidner said: "Let us paint what is near to us, the town which is our universe, the streets full of tumult, the elegance of its iron bridges, its gasometers hanging in mountains of clouds, the shrieking colours of its autobuses and its express trains, the swaying telegraph wires..."

The modern art of derangement didn't arise only from war anticipations. It could be a reflection of the new, wonderfully disorienting world. Meidner's apocalypses are both positive and negative, an ecstasy and a nightmare, either way exciting. And this sensibility, whether it's aghast or energised, also encouraged a keener feeling for older art: El Greco, for example. El Greco's View of Toledo is another crazy vision of a city. Call it apocalyptic, and most people will agree. It's what you'd expect from an intense Spanish counter-reformation spirituality. The Book of Revelation is a subject that El Greco directly addresses elsewhere. But where is apocalypse exactly? And what kind?

What's striking about the painting, subject-wise, is that it lacks any event. It's a remarkably pure landscape or townscape. It has a few, tiny figures, but little sign of habitation or activity. And it's certainly without angels, beasts, flame, earthquake, the risen dead – the usual second-coming attractions. True, the city's geography is partly rearranged, and on the far left side a group of buildings is possibly floating on a cloud (or possibly not). But the evidence of apocalypse here is mainly metaphorical.

Extreme and enveloping natural phenomena stand for the supernatural, and the way the scene is painted makes it all the more visionary. Instead of the Opening of the Seventh Seal, the heavens open, and a storm ricochets through the whole picture. The sky is exploding. It flashes, rolls, wobbles like a thunder sheet, bursts like a shell. The ground is staggered. It architecture tumbles down the hillside as if down flights of stairs. The jumpy lines of buildings look struck by lightning, or simply like forked lightning taking built form.

Apocalypse is a matter of light, paint, form, exaggeration and disintegration, and this is what makes View of Toledo seem modern. Whether it's a positive or negative apocalypse is hard to judge. But in the Christian story, whatever happens on the way, the end of the world is ultimately a happy ending. And making Toledo into the setting for the world's final throes, El Greco is paying his adopted city a great compliment. It becomes, in dread or glory, a holy city.

Everything said so far has cast View of Toledo as a visionary scene, awesome and overwhelming. But it's possible to see it under quite another aspect, as a small and well-managed scene – a landscape made according to the sort of procedures described by one of Thomas Gainsborough's contemporaries. "I... have more than once see him make models – or rather thoughts – for landscape scenery on a little old-fashioned folding oak table... He would place cork or coal for his foregrounds; make middle grounds of sand and clay, bushes of mosses and lichens, and set up distant woods of broccoli".

El Greco's city is likewise a made-up world, a contained environment. The artist may not actually have set up a broccoli scene in his studio. But his image is visibly assembled from pieces, from turf sections, green sprigs, miniature walls and buildings. Even the sky is a cotton-wool fiction.

It is like the little magic kingdom remembered by C S Lewis: "Once in those very early days my brother brought into the nursery the lid of a biscuit tin which he had covered with moss and garnished with twigs and flowers so as to make it a toy garden or a toy forest. That was the first beauty I ever knew."

And at the same time this table- top/biscuit-tin world is shaken by spasms, as in Meidner's "gasometers hanging in mountains of clouds, the shrieking colours of its autobuses and its express trains, the swaying telegraph wires".

A scale model; an apocalypse: View of Toledo is both, which is odd, since these modes should be direct opposites. An apocalypse shows the world as an arena for transcendent and tumultuous forces. A scale model shows it as our careful plaything. An apocalypse declares divine power over us. A scale model suggests our own magical control. In this scene, two forms of world-handling are strangely fused.

About the artist

Domenikos Theotocopoulos (1541-1614) was born in Crete, where he trained as an icon painter in the Byzantine tradition. He moved to Italy, and assimilated the Renaissance accomplishments of Venice and Rome. He ended up in Spain, where he got his nickname, the Greek, and turned into one of the strangest painters in the Western tradition. His subjects are mostly religious, while his images burst in flashes, stretch and shrink as in a fairground mirror, switch angles, fragment, dissolve, and suddenly become clear.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'