El Greco (1541 – 7 April 1614)
Saint Benedict of Nursia
1577 - 1579
Oil on canvas
116 cm x 81 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid
This work was part of a triptych
It was paired with another similar work showing St Bernard of Clairvaux, the other great founder
Both flanked the depiction of the Assumption
The picture of St Bernard is in the Hermitage. The Assumption is in the Art Institute of Chicago
It was part of an altarpiece commissioned for the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo, a Cistercian monastery
The founder of the Benedictine order carries a silver crozier
His hand gestures towards something but we now do not know what it was
He stares out at the viewer but his gaze is soft and benign
The work appears to be a portrait rather than an icon
The Assumption was crowned by a depiction of the Trinity and was surrounded by images of the saints
The work was one of a series of works commissioned by Don Diego de Castilla, Dean of the Cathedral of Toledo
In AD 592, St Gregory the Great wrote of St Benedict:
"The man of God who shone on this earth among so many miracles was just as brilliant in the eloquent exposition of his teaching" (cf. Dialogues II, 36)
In regard to his Rule, St Gregory wrote:
"the holy man could not teach otherwise than as he himself lived" (cf. Dialogues II, 36)
El Greco depicts him as a man in his fifties, which Gregory described as the time when
"the heat of the body waxes cold, and the souls of faithful people become holy vessels; because they then are made the doctors of men's souls. " (Dialogues II, 2)
In 1964, Pope Paul VI reconsecrated the Abbey of Monte Cassino and in his homily recalled the description of St Gregory about St Benedict:
"in superni Spectatoris oculis habitavit secum"
"He dwelt alone with himself, in the sight of his Creator"
Thus in Dialogues II, 3:
"GREGORY: [H]e returned to the wilderness which so much he loved, and dwelt alone with himself, in the sight of his Creator, who beholds the hearts of all men.
PETER: I do not understand very well what you mean, when you say that he dwelt with himself.
GREGORY: If the holy man had longer, contrary to his own mind, continued his government over those monks, who had all conspired against him, and were far unlike him in life and conversation, perhaps he should have diminished his own devotion, and somewhat withdrawn the eyes of his soul from the light of contemplation. Being wearied daily with correcting of their faults, he would have had the less care of himself, and so it might have fallen out that he should have both lost himself, and yet not found them.
For so often as by infectious motion we are carried too far from ourselves, we remain the same men that we were before, and yet not with ourselves as we were before: because we are wandering about other men's affairs, little considering and looking into the state of our own soul.
For shall we say that he was with himself, who went into a far country, and after he had, as we read in the Gospel, prodigally spent that portion which he received of his father, was glad to serve a citizen, to keep his hogs, and would willingly have filled his hungry belly with the husks which they ate? When he remembered those goods which he had lost, it is written that, returning into himself, he said: "How many hired men in my father's house do abound with bread?" [Luke 15]
If then, before he was with himself, from where did he return home to himself?
Therefore I said that this venerable man dwelt with himself, because carrying himself circumspectly and carefully in the sight of his Creator, always considering his own actions, always examining himself, he never turned the eyes of his soul from himself, to behold whatsoever else"
According to Pope Paul VI, the return into the wilderness was motivated by the saint`s desire to escape
"the decadence of society, the moral and cultural vacuum of a world that no longer offered to the spirit of possibility of consciousness, development, conversion; it was necessary to find a shelter for safety, calm, study, prayer, work, friendship, trust."