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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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Saint Benedict was one of a number of saint depictions produced by El Greco soon after arriving in Spain in the late 1570s. This particular piece can now be found in the permanent display of the Prado Museum in Spain.

It is almost a mirror image of Saint Bernard, with the staff this time held on the right hand side of the painting. That instrument is beautifully decorative, and copper or gold coloured around the top. The saint holds his fingers close together in his opposing hand, giving a symbolic gesture to the viewer. He is wearing the traditional clothing that one would expect from his position, a modest, darkly coloured garment which is deliberately without any great detail or flourish. He looks serious as he stares towards us. Behind him we see the expressive sky scene which El Greco regularly used in his portraits, where an abstract style would provide energy across the background. This piece resides within the Prado Museum, where a fine selection of Renaissance and Baroque art can be viewed - El Greco is a popular addition here because of his strong connection to Spanish art, even though he was originally from Crete and also lived in Italy for a number of years as well.

The image captured here is of Saint Benedict of Nursia who was prominent in the 6th century. The portrait was intended to be hung at the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo, Spain. Doña María de Silva financed the construction of a new church and it was decided that fine art would be added to its interior. El Greco was well known to the family financing this new construction and so they contacted him about providing religious portraits for it. They would involve him in a variety of projects for it, including elements of the architecture as well a number of different artworks to be placed within the building itself. In total he would deliver eight paintings, including both this one and the related Saint Bernard which is now found in the Hermitage Museum in Russia. Art historians have suggested that these two portraits follow Venetian styles, and El Greco had learnt much from that kingdom in modern-day Italy. He was from Crete, which at the time was under the rule of Venice.

The style of this portrait helps us to connect directly to an entirely real human being - there is no attempt by the artist to raise him above us, morally, or symbolically, but to celebrate what he achieved as a relatively ordinary man. This would enable visitors to the church to respect and connect with his life, as well as the other saints pictured around the building. Some artists would instead attempt to raise their models to a higher state, something out of reach for the rest of us. There may have been issues between the artist and the church in the manner of his portraits but ultimately they were accepted with blessing, and full payment. El Greco would evolve further in later years, using elongated forms and more dramatic lighting that inspired expressive artists in the centuries that followed.