Saint Benedict1577 - 1579. Oil on canvas, 116 x 81 cm.
This image of Saint Benedict of Nursia (c.480-547) was painted for the high altar in the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, one of the oldest convents in Toledo founded by the Benedictine order in the seventh century. In the sixteenth century, a new church was built with funding from a wealthy patron, Doña María de Silva, who died in 1575. Diego de Castilla, the deacon of the Cathedral of Toledo, was placed in charge of this project. Luis de Castilla, Don Diego´s son, had met El Greco in Rome and it is likely he was one of the people who encouraged the artist to move to Spain in search of the important commissions that were proving elusive in Italy. In Toledo, El Greco received the commission for this work, a complex project because he was charged with producing the central altarpiece as well as two side altarpieces. In addition to his involvement with the architecture of the building and its sculptures, El Greco executed eight paintings, each with different dimensions.For the high altar, El Greco produced a large canvas representing the Assumption of the Virgin (Art Institute of Chicago) flanked by four saints: two full-length images of Saint John the Evangelist and Saint John the Baptist, and two half-length portraits.One of these latter works is the present canvas, whose companion is an image of Saint Bernard (now in the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg). The two saints were of fundamental importance to the Benedictine monks: one was the founder and the other a reformer of their order. For the composition of these two paintings, the artist followed the model established by the Venetian school in their portraits of humanists: a half-length figure structured as a triangle and gesturing with the right hand. Saint Benedict appears middle-aged, with a thin face and very specific features: a prominent nose, large almond-shaped eyes and a weary expression. He looks directly at the viewer. Wearing the habit of the order, he holds in his right hand a sumptuous crosier made of gilt silver, the definitive symbol of a bishop. With his right hand, Benedict extends his fingers, probably as a way of drawing the viewer´s attention to the tabernacle, the receptacle situated on the altar where the bread and wine -symbolising the flesh and blood of Christ- are reserved.The vivid humanity expressed on Saint Benedict´s face invites us to imagine we are in the presence of a real man, not an idealised one. This is consonant with El Greco´s way of revitalising sanctity and bringing it closer to his contemporaries, as he does repeatedly in other paintings. This type of composition approaches the painter´s treatment of the apostles in a number of paintings made in the final years of his career. For that series, El Greco created a portrait of each apostle based on concrete, individual facial expressions and depicted them making elegant gestures with their hands.As is typical of El Greco´s early works, the figure is solidly modelled, executed with heavily impastoed colours similar to those used in portraits from the period. The saint´s hands are particularly noteworthy for both their beauty and their convincing construction. The background is boldly executed: the chestnut-grey base is nuanced with blue-green brushstrokes, a shade that serves to envelop the saint´s head, evoking a kind of nimbus or halo (Ruiz, L.: Portrait of Spain. Masterpieces from the Prado, Queensland Art Gallery-Art Exhibitions Australia, 2012, p. 132).