Saint Ildefonsus El Greco Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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This painting by El Greco was relatively small but full of detail. It can today be found at the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Caridad, Illescas but is sometimes loaned out for temporary exhibitions.

The artist worked on this piece around the period of 1597-1603 and it is just over a metre in height, 64cm wide. Typically, his religious depictions would be slightly larger than this but perhaps because there is only one figure within this painting, he chose a slightly smaller canvas. The composition itself features Saint Ildefonsus at work in Toledo Cathedral. The artist would live within this part of Spain for many years and became a highly sought after painter who attracted large numbers of local patrons. He received large amounts of work from local religious institutions, such as monasteries and churches. He pictures the saint here writing, whilst looking upwards as if deep in thought. Many of his portraits, in line with the times, would feature subjects going about their daily roles, with clues added in order to help the viewer to identify them. Saint Ildefonsus was himself the bishop of Toledo and is presented as intellectual and wise within this portrait.

There is much detail in this artwork, with the saint joined by delightful touches such as the table around which he sits, which features an embrioidered cloth over the top. This brings bright tones of purple and gold into the painting, with additional reflections of light over the ripples of the cloth. We then find still life elements on the table, with various items that represent his daily tasks. Further elements are added to his side, such as a statue on the wall which is perhaps where his gaze is aimed. It was rare for him to include as much detail in his single portraits as this, normally choosing neutral tones for the background and darkened clothing. The saint also wears a dark blue cape whose surface can be understood by the reflections of light which run down his shoulder. El Greco was prolific in his late period but would also require the help of his assistants as more and more commissions came into his workshop.

Saints appeared many times within this artist's oeuvre, mainly for the simple reason that they were requested so frequently by his patrons. New customers would see the work that he had already produced for others, and often demand much the same for themselves. Eventually he would hand some of the copying work over to others, so that he could focus entirely on being innovative. His main genres were religious scenes from the Bible and personal portraits of local people, but within this artwork in front of us here, we find the two merging together within a memorable piece which offers something slightly different to his usual approach at that time. He remains the most famous Greek artist of all time, with many Spaniards now considering him Spanish because of the impact that he also made in that country.