El Greco’s Christ driving the Traders from the Temple

October 17th 2020

El Greco Christ driving the Traders from the Temple about 1600 Oil on canvas, 106.3 x 129.7 cm Presented by Sir J.C. Robinson, 1895 NG1457 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1457

The denarius from today’s gospel bore the image of the Emperor and an inscription describing him as “divi filius” meaning “son of god”.  On the back were the words “pontifex maximus”, meaning “high priest”.   For Jews this coinage contravened both the second and third commandments (Exodus 20:3-4) and so was deemed idolatrous.  In fact, Jews were allowed their own non-idolatrous copper coinage for everyday business, so mostly they didn’t need to use the silver denarius.  For similar reasons, offerings for the Temple were paid in a special Tyrian coinage.  The annual Temple tax was paid in the weeks before Passover.  A pilgrim coming to Jerusalem for Passover paid the tax and paid to have an animal offered in sacrifice.  And so traders were on hand to provide the animal and to exchange the pilgrims’ Greek or Roman coinage for the one acceptable in the Temple.  Although the traders made a profit, they offered a service which helped pilgrims fulfil their religious obligations.  When Jesus overturned the traders’ tables and drove them from the Temple precinct, the issue wasn’t so much about their trade as its location.  It was the Temple authorities who had allowed them to set up shop within the Temple itself.   Jesus’ protest is directed against the Temple authorities.   In Counter-Reformation Rome, the cleansing or purification of the Temple symbolised the purification of the Church after the Council of Trent.   It was chosen by three Popes, Paul IV, Pius IV and Gregory XIII, for the backs of their commemorative medals.  

El Greco was born in Crete and trained in the Byzantine tradition of icon painting.  He left Crete and having spent time in Venice and in Rome,  finally settling in Spain.  He would paint the scene of Christ driving the traders from the Temple several times. The first version of “The Purification of the Temple” , now in Washington, was painted about 1570-1.

In it you can see that he has put aside the very formal style of an icon and has absorbed the influence of Venetian artists such as Titian and Tintoretto.  His figures are posed naturally in classical architectural spaces which make great use of Italian techniques in perspective.   The version which is now in the National Gallery in London (above) was painted much later – about 1600.  While he has retained some of his Italian influences, the figures fill the scene.  The grand architectural setting is much reduced and is there only to unpack the spiritual significance of the action.  At the centre is Christ, who is clad in in a red tunic around which is a blue cloak, coiled like spring.  With great energy Christ is about to wield a whip against the traders who are all on the left.  They recoil and raise their arms in an attempt  to protect themselves from the attack.  By contrast,  the disciples are all on the right and are engaged in a calm discourse.  The figure of Christ divides these two very difference scenes in two.  One thinks of the veil of the Temple which will be torn in two (Matthew 27:51).   Above the traders there is a carved relief of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden. El Greco puts it there to symbolise sin.  Above the disciples, there is another relief panel showing Abraham at the very moment when the angel stops him from sacrificing Isaac.  It is surely placed there to symbolise the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  Disobedience is contrasted with obedience and the whole composition echoes the final judgement, with Christ at the centre.  There is a woman in the background on the right.  It has been suggested that she is the widow who gave all she had to the Temple treasury (Mark 12:41-4, Luke 21:1-40).  If so, she is one of the pure in heart, blessed because she will see God (Matthew 5:8).  As in the gospel texts, her quiet presence surely encapsulates the meaning of the entire scene. 

El Greco’s Christ driving the Traders from the Temple

Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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