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

St Ildefonso

Oil on canvas, 219 x 105 cm
Monasterio de San Lorenzo, El Escorial

St Ildefonso (c. 606-667) was a Spanish prelate, born in Toledo, abbot of its Benedictine monastery at nearby Agli, appointed archbishop of Toledo in 657. Among his numerous theological writings was a defence of the 'perpetual virginity' of the Virgin Mary. His vision of the Virgin is represented in Spanish painting. It is related that he saw the Virgin with attendant angles seated on his episcopal throne in the cathedral. As he approached she threw over him a chasuble of heavenly origin.

El Greco represent the patron saint of Toledo in full episcopal regalia, holding an elaborate gilt crosier through its green velvet sleeve wearing white kid gloves. He is wearing a spectacular chasuble embroidered with floral arabesques and exotic birds, lined with pink silk, over a radiant white alb, and on his head an embroidered mitre. He reads a holy book with serious intensity while all around him the sky seems charged with high-voltage static.

The saint is illuminated from the left, in contrast to the companion piece of St Peter, who is lit from the light. This, and the arched top of both canvases (reduced in both paintings) indicate that they were conceived to flank a window or central image. This was almost certainly The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. Thus St Peter would have been intended to hang to the left of the altarpiece and St Ildefonso to the right. It is unlikely that these paintings were ever hung in the chapel, having been substituted with copies from the start.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.