(b. 1541, Candia, d. 1614, Toledo)

The Opening of the Fifth Seal (The Vision of St John)

Oil on canvas, 222,3 x 193 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

'And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God . . . And they cried with a loud voice . . . And white robes were given to every one of them . . .' (Revelation of St John, VI, 9-11).

The Opening of the Fifth Seal is a large fragment of one of three altarpieces El Greco contracted to paint in 1608 for the church of the Hospital of St John the Baptist (the Tavera Hospital). Located just outside the walls of Toledo, the hospital was founded in 1541 by Cardinal Juan Tavera (1472-1545), who is buried in the church. Of this project for the altarpieces, three pictures survive: an Annunciation (Colección Santander Central Hispano, Madrid, the upper portion showing a choir of angels has been cut and is in the National Gallery, Athens), a Baptism (installed on a side altar in the church), and The Opening of the Fifth Seal (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

The painting has been cut at the top, where there was possibly a representation of the Throne: 'And immediately I was in the spirit, and behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne . . . and round about the throne were four and twenty seats, and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders . . . And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book . . . sealed with seven seals . . .' (Revelation of St John, IV -V).

In the foreground is an incredibly elongated, ecstatic figure of St John, his head turned imploringly heavenward, his arms raised. Behind him are two roups of figures. The three on the right, seen against a green drapery, are male and reach upwards for white garments distributed by a flying cherub. The four on the left are shown in front of a mustard-coloured cloth. Two are male, two female, and they seem to be covering (or uncovering) themselves with the yellow drapery. The Spirit as 'a living flame, striving upwards', and this strange compatibility of infinite darkness and 'all-consuming light' is met with in the writings of the mystics of his time, Saint Teresa of Jesus and Saint John of the Cross. El Greco realises the apocalyptical vision in colour, light and movement.

This project was El Greco's last large-scale undertaking, and he did not live to complete it. The unfinished painting fittingly closes his career.