El Greco has used theatrical gestures and intense colours to express the chaos and disruption of the Purification of the Temple – the moment that Christ drove out traders selling animals for sacrifice, furious that the temple was being used for commerce. Christ’s anger is shown through his body, arm raised ready to strike; he looks like a spring ready to uncoil.
A sculpture of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, to the left of the archway, reinforces the sinfulness of the traders' actions. In contrast, Christ’s apostles stand in front of a relief sculpture showing the Old Testament figure Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his own son on God’s command.
El Greco painted this subject at least four times, but this is one of the most dramatic versions. In the sixteenth century the episode was seen as a parallel to the cleansing of the Catholic Church through the Counter-Reformation.
The story of the Purification of the Temple is told in all the Gospels: Christ had gone to the Temple to celebrate Passover, but found people selling sheep, oxen and doves for sacrifice. Angry that his father’s house – the house of God – was being used for profit he ‘made a scourge of small cords [and] drove them all out of the temple’ (John 2: 14–16).
El Greco painted this subject at least four times, but this is one of the most dramatic versions. In the sixteenth century the episode was seen as a parallel to the cleansing of the Catholic Church through the Counter-Reformation, and often featured on medals made for popes. El Greco has used exaggerated gestures and intense colours to reinforce the message of his picture. Christ’s energy and anger is expressed through his movement, his right arm raised ready to strike the man draped in a vibrant yellow cloth. His body twists with this forceful gesture; he looks like a spring ready to uncoil. El Greco has drawn attention to this shape by wrapping a contrasting blue drape around his red tunic.
The man in yellow mirrors Christ’s pose: he recoils, arching his back and raising his hand to protect his face. This causes a domino effect and the figures behind him lean backwards to avoid being struck or crushed. The painting shows El Greco’s debt to Renaissance art that he saw on his travels to Venice and Rome. Christ’s dynamic pose resembles a figure of Christ in a painting by Titian and that of the trader recoiling looks like a figure in an altarpiece by Michelangelo. The figures on the other side of Christ are much calmer. They look on at the scene and whisper among themselves. The man with the grey beard in the foreground is the apostle Peter, recognisable by his traditional blue and yellow robes.
Buildings just visible through the central archway recall Venetian palaces with lower storey arcades that served as moorings for boats in the city. El Greco spent some time in Venice in 1568 and became very interested in using architecture in his paintings. In our picture the columns are cropped; they indicate a grand architectural setting but El Greco does not describe it.
The only details he does include are the sculpted reliefs on the walls either side of the archway. On the left, Adam and Eve are being cast out of the Garden of Eden; on the right, we see the attempted sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, following God’s command (it was stopped by an angel). Adam and Eve are a parallel for the sinful traders: they were driven from paradise, God’s garden, just as Christ drives those engaged in commerce from the temple, God’s house. The sacrifice of Isaac symbolises not only obedience to God’s will but also Christ’s own sacrifice at his crucifixion, which was seen to redeem the sin of Adam and Eve.
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