This simple composition features the saint looking in our direction whilst having his right hand open in a welcoming manner. His left hand is removed entirely from the scene, with the portrait cropped at around waist height. His face is gaunt, typical of El Greco's portraits, and his appearance cannot be described as being full of life. Light comes down on his right side, our left, and mainly covers his face and one side of his body. The wraps of his clothing help to provide further interest, with a simple tunic made from a blue which will remind many of the work of famous Venetian painters. Behind him is a flat tone of dark brown which deliberately avoids distracting us from the main focal point. Saint James the Elder is a well crafted portrait painting which over time has become attributed by its present owners to the artist himself, but in collaboration with members of his workshop. Some other items within their collection have followed a similar style but later became connected to followers of the artist, who maybe even had never met the great man, or served within his studio. El Greco's approach was fairly unique for the period, and this resulted in a passionate following who appreciated the new ideas that he brought to Spanish art.

The artist worked alongside his studio on a series for the Church of Almadrones, Guadalajara. The items included The Saviour, Saint James, Saint Thomas and Saint Paul, all of which reside today at the Prado Museum. The artist was regularly tasked with putting together series of works, with some patrons wanting to have consistency between the different artworks hanging in their buildings. El Greco has formed an impressive reputation within Spain towards the end of his life and enjoyed a large number of requests, particularly within the region in which he lived. His son helped out by running the workshop as it started to grow in numbers and significance. Of that series, the item shown here is generally believed to be a portrait of Saint James the Elder. It is seen as the best of the series for a number of reasons, but mainly because of the use of light across the scene. It still seems extraordinary that the artist was able to acquire so much work in and around Toledo, and that region alone would keep him busy.

Saints would appear many times over across his oeuvre and were popular within Spain towards the end of the 16th century. Many monasteries and churches asked for whole series of different saints, with individual portraits for each one. These could be moved around the buildings with great flexibility and El Greco eventually allowed his assistants to become involved in requests such as this. He managed to find a healthy balance between taking on more work, but without diluting the quality of his output by relying too much on other artists. This was proven in how the commissions kept coming in, even as he gave more freedom and responsibility to his workshop. Some of these highly trained painters would continue in the same style even after his death.