At the age of twenty-six El Greco moved to Venice, where he acquired the skills of renaissance painting such as perspective and figural construction before moving to Rome. His career in Rome was not a success, possibly because of his ill-advised criticism of Michaelangelo and in 1576 he moved to Spain, where he hoped to gain the royal patronage of King Philip II.
The first painting commissioned by Philip II is known as the Adoration of the Name of Jesus or the Allegory of the Holy League. The second was for the Chapel of Saint Maurice in the newly built Church of the Escorial. For this El Greco painted The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice and it was completed in 1581. El Greco was born in Crete in 1541 and originally trained as an icon painter.
Saint Maurice was believed to be a third-century Roman soldier and a Christian in a time when the Roman Empire was still pagan. When the Emperor, Maximilian ordered Saint Maurice and his legion to harass a town of Christians, they refused. As a punishment Maximilian had Saint Maurice and his legion executed. Saint Maurice had been a popular saint throughout the medieval period, including being named the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire. King Philip II was known to have a particular devotion to him.
The Painting is done in oil on canvas in the Mannerist style, which can clearly be seen in the elongated anatomy of the figures and the almost jarring use of colour. El Greco once said, "I hold the imitation of colour to be the greatest difficulty of art." and much of his artwork is typified by bold use of colour. He used the commonly available pigments available in his time, but unusually for his work, in The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice the dominant colour is aquamarine, one of the more expensive pigments.
Although titled The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice, the physical aspect of martyrdom can only be seen in the small group on the left of the painting, where one figure has just been martyred and another awaits it. The main focus is the bold group in the foreground done in the heroic figure style of Rome. The group includes Saint Maurice himself and here the dominant aquamarine colour contrasts dramatically with the yellow tunic of the figure on the right.
The composition of the legions as they await death is similar to that in the Adoration of the Name of Jesus. El Greco (The Greek) was the artist's nickname, referring to his place of birth. He signed all his works with his real name in Greek letters - Domenikos Theotokopoulos. In the Martyrdom of Saint Maurice the signature can be seen on a paper held by a serpent, which may represent the spirit of evil or the Earth.
The painting was completed by 16th November 1562 when it was brought to the Church of the Escorial, but it was not a success. King Philip II took an instant dislike to it, the reasons for which are not completly clear. Possibly he disliked the bold colours or perhaps he had hoped for the actual martyrdom to feature more obviously. The painting was not prominently displayed and the king commissioned Cincinato to paint a replacement.
El Greco was given no further commissions from the King, but the notoriety of his dismissal seems to have worked in his favour when he returned to Toledo. He received many commissions and entered the most productive decades of his life. Ironically the daring use of colour which may have made it so unpopular with its first owner, is one reason for its popularity today.