“Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple”
Date: circa 1600
Artist: El Greco
Location: National Gallery, London
Medium: Oil on Panel
Dimensions: 65.4 x 83.2 cm (25 3/4 x 32 3/4 in.)
El Greco, born Doménikos Theotokópoulos, was born in Crete (then a part of the Republic of Venice) around 1541. At some point he was given the nickname “El Greco,” which was most likely a reference to his ancestral Greek heritage. Also, he often signed his work with his full name, spelled out in Greek letters. In his early years he developed a passion for art, and in his twenties he decided to move out to pursue a further career as a painter, sculptor, and architect. He first moved to Venice to study and practice art, possibly in the studio of renowned artist Titian. During his time in Venice, he was very influenced by Renaissance style, which was reflected in his works. After spending a few years in Venice, he moved to Rome in 1570 and lived there until 1576. While there, he lived in the palace of a very wealthy cardinal, Alessandro Farnese. Cardinal Farnese was a prestigious man in the city and helped to get El Greco involved with other popular intellectuals and artists within Rome. During this period, his art began to take on many characteristics of Mannerism. In 1577, he moved to Toledo, Spain, where he remained until his death in 1614. It was here that El Greco painted most of his masterpieces, including “Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple.”
It is believed that El Greco painted “Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple” around the year 1600. This is one of the four paintings that he made of the same event; all four bear striking similarities, but were painted at different times throughout El Greco’s career. In it, El Greco depicts the events of Matthew 21, in which Jesus storms into the temple courtyard and drives out all of the salesmen and money changers who are doing business there. It is a very short but dramatic passage, and El Greco does a wonderful job of capturing the energy and intensity of the scene in this painting. Depictions of this story were not common before the Counter-Reformation, which was a time when the church focused on the purging of heresy from within.
The focal point of the painting is Christ, who drives out all of the “traders” and merchants with a whip. The traders, depicted on the left side of the image, recoil from Christ’s dominating presence and action. The apostles stand on the right side of the image and appear to be looking on with interest and discussing the matter at hand with one another. In this painting, El Greco is providing a contrast between the Law of the Old Testament and the new law instated by Christ in the New Testament, which is synonymous with the commonly interpreted meaning of the Biblical passage that it represents. The traders to the left signify the Old Law, and an old man in the crowd is the artist’s allusion to the writings of Paul, in which an old man is associated with the old Law. Additionally, reliefs that are carved in the walls of the temple courtyard behind the scene depict scenes of expulsion as well as redemption. To the left, a scene of the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden alludes to the banishment of the traders. To the right, a scene of the sacrifice of Isaac symbolizes the deliverance that Christ provides through his establishment of the new law.
Due to the fact that this painting was made after El Greco’s time spent in Rome, it possesses qualities that are characteristic of of the Mannerism movement. The elongated figures are distorted and twisted into awkward and dramatic poses. The size of the figures is not realistic, and their proportions are not accurate. Though it’s relatively dark, the colors of the painting are vivid and varied. Christ’s red clothing, symbolic of his holiness and divinity, make him really pop out in the center of the image. The crowded visual space and asymmetry of the image are also very characteristic of Mannerism.
There are some things that appeal to me about this painting and others that do not. I’m not a huge fan of the Mannerism style in general, so I don’t like the unrealistic characteristics of the painting. However, I do appreciate El Greco’s ability to capture the intensity of this Biblical story. The cleansing of the temple has always been one of my favorite stories in Christ’s narrative because it allows us to see into the just rage of God that can often be overlooked by his gentleness, and I think that El Greco’s work here does a wonderful job of portraying that rage in the chaotic scene.
Brown, Jonathan (ed.) (1982). “El Greco and Toledo”. El Greco of Toledo (catalogue). Little Brown. ASIN B-000H4-58C-Y.
Doyle. Humanities 300 Lecture