El Greco: The Vision of Saint John; the breaking of the fifth seal (1608-1614)

(Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA)

A rather weird painting and many people usually think its from the 20th century. The painting shows a passage from  the Book of Revelation (6:9-11) in the Bible. In this book John of Patmos describes the opening of a scroll which is sealed with 7 seals. The scroll was given by God to Jesus Christ in Heaven for him to open. Breaking each seal results in a series of spectacular events. The first 4 seals are commonly known as "the four horsemen of the apocalypse.":

- First seal: the arrival of a rider on a white horse (conquest/ victory)
- Second seal: the arrival of a rider on a red horse (war)
- Third seal: the arrival of a rider on a black horse (famine)
- Fourth seal: the arrival of a rider on a pale horse (death), 'and Hell followed with him'
- Fifth seal: the Souls of the martyrs
- Sixth seal: a Great earthquake 
- Seventh seal: coming of Seven angels, the end of the world.

This painting shows the breaking of the fifth seal. The souls of the martyrs rise up and ask God "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”. After that the souls of the martyrs are given white robes and are told "to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been" (Book of Revelation, 6:9-11). Saint John of Patmos is the figure on the left with the souls of the martyrs recieving their white robes in the background. The painting orginally was part of a large altarpiece commissioned for the church of the hospital of Saint John the Baptist in Toledo but the rest was damaged. The painting was and is a big inspiration for modern artist. Painting from 1608-1614.