(b. 1541, Candia, d. 1614, Toledo)
Oil on canvas, 187 x 102 cm
Hospital de la Caridad, Illescas
In collaboration with his son Jorge Manuel in 1603-07, El Greco executed an extensive programme of pictures for the Hospital de la Caridad in Illescas: a Madonna of Charity, a Coronation of the Virgin, an Annunciation, and a Nativity. Under a separate contract a further picture was made, of St Ildefonso, who was particularly important for Toledo.
The painting is in the side altar on the left of the main chapel of the church, balancing the Virgin of Charity. Its original place in the church is not known. The painting is not mentioned in the incomplete documentation for the decoration of the chapel, and if, as is probable, it was not painted at the same time, it cannot date much before June 1603, the date of the contract, and was more likely painted soon after the conclusion of litigation in August 1607. In its present position, it makes a grand pair to the Virgin of Charity, and is one of the most splendid of his 'portraits' of Saints.
It is difficult, and perhaps not proper, to separate his portraits of Saints from his actual portraits. In both he employs all his means of spiritual or psychological expression. The legend is that Saint Ildefonso, the first Bishop of Toledo, presented an image of the Virgin of the Mantle to a foundation of his in Illescas. The Saint is portrayed before the same image, as he wrote his dissertation on the Purity of the Virgin. The state of inspiration is brilliantly expressed. There is an infinite distinction in expression between the hand poised with the pen in this 'portrait' and the similar motif in the portrait of his son.
In his depiction of St Ildefonso, El Greco anticipated a Baroque motif, that of the learned churchman. As if receiving inspiration, the saint is seated at a desk covered with an array of utensils that is unusually detailed for the artist.
There is a smaller replica of the picture in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It belonged once to the painter Jean François Millet, and later to Edgar Degas.