This portrait specifically pictures Bernard of Clairvaux. He was a Burgundian abbot and is believed to have played an important role in the re-emergence of Benedictine monasticism. He lived across the 11th and 12th century and spent most of his life within what was then known as the Kingdom of France. El Greco would feature saints within his career many times, often in single portrait poses as found with this piece. You can currently find this artwork displayed in the Spanish Painting of the 15th-20th Centuries section of the Hermitage's European Fine Art collection in the stunning city of St Petersburg. This impressive venue hosts one of the most important selections of art anywhere in the world and much of it came from such notable Russian collectors who overtime bequethed parts of their collections to the state. They themselves list this piece as being 116x79,5 cm, which was entirely typical for El Greco's portraits.
The date of 1577-1579 places it right at the time of the artist's arrival in Spain. Saint Bernard holds some symbolic items that tell us more about his own life. El Greco chooses to leave the background in relative darkness, and concentrates on producing some highly realistic drapery on the saint's white clothing. His portraits tended to have fairly angular, almost gaunt faces and we see that again here. They would also often be slightly balding as if to signify age, and the expressions would always be relatively neutral. The staff he holds in his right hand and it reaches up to the top of the painting, with El Greco including some delicate touches of detail from its intricate design. He would go on to create several more versions of Saint Bernard, calling upon the services of his studio as his career progressed.
St Bernard remains one of the few El Greco paintings to be found today in Russia, and offers an important contribution to the overall display of the Hermitage Museum. The style found here is entirely typical of the artist, and offers a good survey of his work at the point that he relocated to Spain. He also fitted in many projects such as this in between his larger requests, and this enabled him to jump around, drawing in more patrons and effectively managing his studio. He became highly profitable and successful, though was aware that some in Spain would never truly accept him. Thankfully, he is today known all around the world and the public particularly appreciate the style that he developed over the course of his career.