In the time of Christ, the porch of the Temple in Jerusalem accommodated a market for buying sacrificial animals and changing money. Christ drove out the traders, saying, 'It is written "My house shall be called a house of prayer"; but you make it a den of thieves.' (Matthew 20). This episode is known as the Purification of the Temple.
The picture is dominated by the figure of Christ, poised to unleash his whip. On the left are the traders and on the right are the Apostles. In the 16th century the subject of the Purification of the Temple was used as a symbol of the Church's need to cleanse itself both through the condemnation of heresy and through internal reform.
The reliefs in the background allude to the themes of punishment and deliverance. On the left Adam and Eve's expulsion from Paradise prefigures the Purification of the Temple, and on the right, the Sacrifice of Isaac prefigures Christ's death as the source of redemption.
El Greco painted the subject several times throughout his career, both in Italy and in Spain. This version, with its strong colours and elongated forms, was probably painted in Toledo in about 1600.
Miranda Hinkley : Take a walk around the Gallery and it soon becomes clear that the history of art is inextricably bound up with the history of religion – and with one story in particular. Masterpiece after masterpiece in the collection is devoted to the life of Christ and this Easter time we’ve brought some of those works together in an audio trail specifically devoted to the subject. Leah Kharibian talked to curator Dawson Carr to find out more.
Leah Kharibian: The Life of Christ trail includes some of the National Gallery’s greatest masterpieces and listening to it made me wonder why is it that this particular sacred story inspired such a huge array of wonderful art?
Dawson Carr: Well, of course, Christianity is the greatest single force in European history. The belief in Christ generated the most awesome art that has been produced and exists in the National Gallery for this reason.
Leah Kharibian: The story itself is an extraordinary story that takes us from this humble birth through all the events of his life and his teachings, each of which are stories within stories, often he’s talking in parables, and then the events of his death, and the Resurrection. I mean, the story itself seems to provide artists with such an array of subject matter…
Dawson Carr: There’s not a greater story in existence, not even the tales of mythology are greater than this story, and of course the artists as well were believers, and this was very much an expression of their faith.
Leah Kharibian: And would you say that it was a spur to creativity, even experimentation among artists, and I’m thinking here about one of the works that appears on the trail, El Greco’s 'Christ driving the Traders from the Temple', which by any account is an extraordinary picture. I mean to me it looks so modern…
Dawson Carr: Well, and of course, this story is truly exceptional in the life of Christ. This is a very non-typical moment. This was the man of non-violence and here we see him being violent on arriving at the temple and seeing it being desecrated by commerce. And he takes his belt and he makes it into a flail and he drives them out of the temple. And in this work, El Greco has thought about this subject over the course of his career. He returned to the subject again and again and again. And by the time he gets to this late phase in his career, he really understands it, and he understands its meaning, its bigger meaning than just the event. It was often interpreted as the cleansing of the soul of sin and so here you see the composition divided in half spinning around the figure of Christ. On the left-hand side, the traders are all in a jumble and on the right-hand side, much more calm are the righteous, who simply sit and comment on the event.
Leah Kharibian: And this is painted around 1600, so that’s the beginning of the 17th century, I mean what sort of function would this picture originally have served – what would it have been made for? Do we know?
Dawson Carr: We don’t know in this case, but because he returned to this composition again and again, we doubt that it was created for any sort of liturgical purpose. This was really the creation of a gallery picture, a picture meant to be viewed much as pictures are viewed in the National Gallery today, hung in a picture gallery, hung in a house, as a work of art. But a work of art that compels those who look at it to think about the subject, think about the deeper meaning, and how the artist has brought that to be.
Leah Kharibian: And do you see people in the National Gallery, I mean visitors today, still looking at the works in that sort of way?
Dawson Carr: Absolutely, you do definitely see people wrapped in front of pictures like this, trying to figure it out. This isn’t something that’s easy, something that is gained with an initial impression. The language of art speaks to those who are willing to stand and look and really analyse what an artist has done and why.
Leah Kharibian: But from a devotional point of view, there are some pictures in the National Gallery that are still operating as devotional pictures – there’s one in particular that you’ve seen people in front of?
Dawson Carr: Yes, there is one painting in my part of the collection that I’ve seen people standing in front of and saying prayers before any number of times. And that’s Sassoferrato’s 'Madonna' and she’s isolated against a dark background. She is prayerful herself and she leads people to prayer still.
Leah Kharibian: Still, so are they kneeling?
Dawson Carr: No, not kneeling, but just standing in front of the work with their heads bowed clearly saying a little prayer.
Leah Kharibian: And a picture like that, would you ever take it down or move it?
Dawson Carr: I’ve only done it once in my time at the Gallery and I started getting telephone calls immediately asking where it is. In the Italian 17th century we have a number of very great works and I tend to keep them rotated, but I don’t take that one down now.
Leah Kharibian: So Sasserferrato’s ‘Virgin’ is staying in place…
Dawson Carr: Absolutely.
Leah Kharibian: Thank you so much Dawson.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Dawson Carr talking to Leah Kharibian. If you’re visiting the National Gallery this month, and would like to take 'The Life of Christ' trail, it’s available from audio guide desks, and features former Gallery director, Neil McGregor.