The subject of the Purification of the Temple is taken from the New Testament (Matthew 21: 12–13). Jesus drove the traders out of the Temple in Jerusalem, accusing them of turning a house of prayer into a den of thieves.
Venusti painted numerous small-scale copies of drawings and frescoes by Michelangelo. No finished drawing by Michelangelo is known for this composition, but there are surviving small sketches of the figures. In Venusti’s painting, although the drama is centred on Jesus and the crowd of figures, the majority of the composition is devoted to the architecture, for which there is no known drawing. The pillars are modelled on famous antique examples in the Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome, which were believed to have come from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.
In 1549 Venusti was commissioned by Pope Paul III to decorate the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican, however the Pope died and the project was suspended. Our painting may be a small version to commemorate this never executed fresco project.
The subject of the Purification of the Temple is taken from the New Testament (Matthew 21: 12–13). After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Christ went to the Temple where he found it occupied by money changers and traders. He accused them of turning a house of prayer into a den of thieves and drove them out.
In Venusti’s painting, the menorah candles lit on the altar make it clear that this is the Jewish Temple. Jesus rushes into the crowd brandishing a whip above his head. He lifts one end of the money changers’ table causing gold coins to spill off the other end onto the floor. Another pot of gold on the ground is overturned in the commotion.
According to Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, Venusti, who was a talented associate of Michelangelo, painted numerous small-scale copies of drawings and frescoes by him. Michelangelo is known to have made and given away drawings for works which were subsequently painted by other artists. No finished drawing by Michelangelo is known for this composition, but there are surviving small sketches of the figures. One is in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and three more detailed sketches are in the British Museum, London, of which the largest contains all the figures but not the architectural background of the National Gallery’s painting.
Although the drama of the scene is centred on Jesus and the crowd of figures, the majority of the painting is devoted to the architecture. The design was very carefully and meticulously inscribed using compass and ruler before painting began. The figure group is dwarfed by the huge scale of the classical interior with its opulent decorations of coloured marble. Michelangelo was an accomplished architect as well as a painter and sculptor, and worked on the designs for St Peter’s in Rome. There is no known drawing for the architecture in the National Gallery’s painting, but the pillars are modelled on famous antique examples presented to the Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome by Emperor Constantine I (about 272–337 AD). Giacomo della Porta was the first architect to use marble inlay in St Peter’s, in the Cappella Gregoriana (1572–85). Venusti’s architecture in the Purification is more in the spirit of Della Porta than Michelangelo’s architectural designs, and it is likely that his painting was made around the time that Della Porta was working in the Cappella Gregoriana.
In 1549 Venusti was commissioned by Pope Paul III to decorate the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican, and began to make cartoons with the agreement of Michelangelo. In November 1549 the Pope died and the project was suspended. The subject Venusti appears to have been drawing for the chapel was Christ driving out the Money Changers, also known as The Purification of the Temple, and it is possible that our painting is a small version to commemorate this never executed fresco project.
This composition may have influenced El Greco in his representations of the Purification of the Temple, one of which is in the National Gallery’s collection. However, it seems that El Greco’s version is more of a critique of Michelangelo’s design as painted by Venusti rather than a salute to it, as only the basic arrangement is similar.
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