This famous religious theme has appeared in the careers of many artists from around the Renaisance era, with Caravaggio perhaps producing the best known version of Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy. That piece arrived just a few years earlier than this one, underlining what a rich artistic period the late 16th century was. Giotto and Giovanni Bellini would also produced their own versions separately at other points and the content seemed to inspire many artists, with its strong emotions that tell of a saint seeking and receiving a sign. He receives the the wounds left in Christ's body by the Crucifixion and is then left unconscious himself by this overpowering moment. Some depictions then have an angel holding his body as he lies down but El Greco prefers to concentrate on a moment just before that, where he is seeking out the sign. The item's value has been affected by its potential connection to his studio, but it still offers us something different to the large body of work which came from El Greco and his assistants at around the late 16th to early 17th century.
Recent research has suggested that actually this piece may have been a copy from an earlier original, with the painting owned by the Prado potentially having been completed by members of the artist's studio. It is a relatively simple composition, with Saint Francis pictured in darkness, looking up to our left at something outside the boundaries of the artwork. He is dressed in a dark grey or brown hooded garment, and there are none of the typical bright tones which the artist used elsewhere in his career. The mood here is therefore much more sombre, which perhaps is suited to the content itself. The artwork was completed in oils which is how El Greco tended to work in the latter part of his career. Some early items from when he lived in Crete made use of tempera and gold instead, which was more traditionally-minded and illustrates the evolution of his style and techniques across his lifetime.
There are, in fact, five different artworks on this theme which have been attributed to El Greco, with another famous version of Ecstasy of St Francis of Assisi from around 1580 to be found at the Diocesan Museum in Siedlce, Siedlce. Each one features the saint staring off to the left hand side whilst dressed in the same simple, modest clothing, though there are variations in lighting, with some bringing in a little more colours from the skies above. Clearly, this theme was important to the artist as not all of these would have been commissioned pieces, and perhaps his studio decided to experiment in creating their own versions along the same lines. We do know that El Greco's son worked alongside him for a number of years but certainly lacked the innovation and flair of his father. El Greco's popularity led to a large number of commissions coming in and so it was entirely necessary for him to bring in support from others to avoid falling behind on this growing number of projects.