“Purification of the Temple” by El Greco

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) (1541 – 1614)
Purification of the Temple, c.1600
oil on canvas
16 1/2 x 20 5/8 in. (41.9 x 52.4 cm)
Henry Clay Frick Bequest
Accession number: 1909.1.66

Jesus went into the Temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the stools of those who sold pigeons,and said to them, ‘It is written in the Scriptures that God said, “My Temple will be called a house of prayer.” But you are making it a hideout for thieves!’” (Matthew 21:12-13)

When Domenikos Theotokopoulos – better known as El Greco – painted Jesus expelling money lenders from the Temple in Jerusalem, a narrative found in all four Gospels, the religious and cultural backdrop was a Church divided.  In the midst of the Protestant Reformation and the Counter Reformation, the story of Jesus, who had never before been cited in the canonical Gospels as being physically assertive, driving out those who tainted the purity of his Father’s house was especially resonant.  In areas of Europe where Protestantism was taking hold, iconoclastic riots resulted in the forcible stripping of “painted idols” from churches.  The defamation of the sacred permeated the atmosphere in which El Greco and his contemporaries were working.

El Greco’s c. 1600 Purification of the Temple enhances the New Testament scene with the inclusion of Old Testament sagas that were seen as typological precursors to the Temple incident.  Featured as bas-reliefs on the Temple walls are the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:21-24) and the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19).  The Expulsion relief is on the left of the archway that leads out of the Temple, above the group of sinners being cast out by Jesus.  The Binding of Isaac relief, on the right, is placed above Jesus’s followers and believers, who watch the dramatic scene unfold.  The Expulsion correlates to Jesus’s act of purification, while the Akedah is viewed in orthodox Christianity as the antecedent of Jesus’s death on the cross, an event that occurred nearly a week after the incident in the Temple.

This small but moving painting is an understated jewel in the Frick Collection.

- T.C. for MOBIA

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