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El Greco’s Cleansing of the Temple

El Greco’s Cleansing of the Temple (1600) is a cautionary work, admonishing the Church to remember that money, power, and politics can be corrupting influences, El Greco paints a dynamic picture of Christ brandishing a whip of cords as he moves through, what should be a house of prayer, but has become a den of thieves.El Greco's Cleansing of the Temple

El Greco portrait from the MetWho was El Greco

Domenikos Theotokopoulas, or El Greco, was a Spanish Mannerist artist who began life on the island of Crete, which explains his nickname, The Greek. He started out as a Byzantine icon painter, and those influences stayed with him throughout his career. Byzantine art was known for it’s solemnity, and somewhat rigid figures, and often contained a mystical element that appealed to El Greco.

After a time, as did many artists of his time, El Greco decided to move on to Italy, to study the Italian Renaissance masters. Landing in Venice, El Greco worked with both Titian and Tintoretto. The influence of Titian’s use of color, and Tintoretto’s use of light can be seen in the work we will examine today. He was also introduced to the unique developments of the Mannerists which captured his imagination and came to define his art.

What is Mannerism

In these years in Venice, the rules of the Renaissance still held sway. Perfect equilibrium of form, careful use of perspective, and harmonious compositions were necessary to be considered a great Renaissance artists. However, discontent was growing, artists wanted to branch out, experiment, try new things. One of the first mannerists was the Renaissance artist Michelangelo. Never content, always pushing himself, the divine Michelangelo began to play with twisted figures and unusual colors on the Sistine ceiling. These changes inspired other artists to push harder and play with perspective, elongate figures, and use unnatural colors.

Libyan Sybil from the Sistine Ceiling, Michelangelo
Michelangelo’s Sybil, a precursor to Mannerism

A push back on the idealized perfection of the Renaissance, mannerists developed into an intellectually sophisticated style whose artificial qualities exaggerated the messages of the artists. The term came to include all of the art of this era that defied the definitions of Renaissance art, and so includes a wide variety of characteristics making it hard to define.

For El Greco, who is often used as the example for Mannerism, this style is seen in his startling use of colors, and the unnatural shapes of his human figures. I always feel I’m looking at the inner, or emotional life of his subjects, and not their outward appearance. On the one hand the human figures can appear sculptural, on the other the positions can feel contorted and unnatural. And his palette contrasts sharply with the colors chosen during the Renaissance. Lime green or hot pink, the colors leap out at us, particularly if we have just come from viewing works like Raphael or Giorgione.

These stylistic differences of El Greco give his paintings a modern feel, and in fact, he fell out of favor for quite some time, and it was modern artist who rediscovered the Spanish master and taught us to appreciate his unique vision. His modern aesthetic doesn’t fit the 16th century that he painted in, and he reminds us that Art History doesn’t flow in a neat line. There have always been outliers who experimented more than their contemporaries. Disruptors who push the boundaries of what the public was comfortable with, but who history would remember as innovative leaders.

Manet, Cezanne, Picasso, and Jackson Pollack all saw in El Greco a kindred spirit, and we can thank them for bringing his art back into the public awareness.

El Greco comes home, to Spain

El Greco was given a commission in Toledo, Spain, and once there he never left. In this new environment he found a ready audience for his unique style, and a place to develop dramatic visions without the constant criticism he’s experienced in Italy.

Spain was unapologetically Catholic and open to the mysticism that so intrigued El Greco. In Toledo El Greco could both explore new styles and continue to receive commissions. Traditionally, artist painted beauty and perfection as a way of representing the divine, and of moving the viewer closer to God.

El Greco, by contrast, deformed the shapes of his buildings and his figures on purpose. He had a theological goal, believing that if he could escape realism he could find a gateway to the divine.

El Greco, Cleansing of the Temple
Another El Greco, Cleansing of the Temple, painted 30 years earlier

The Reformation, Counter-Reformation battle over the cleansing of the temple

El Greco painted the cleansing of the temple four times that we know of. The story was very popular in this time period with both Protestant and Catholic artists. During the Reformation, the reformers viewed themselves as going back to the true gospel, to rejecting the excesses and abuses that had crept into the Catholic system. This made the story of Christ sweeping through the temple, overturning tables and driving the money changers out of God’s house appealing, they were doing the same.

In the same vein, Catholicism was going through it’s own reformation period, the Counter-Reformation. Recognizing the truth that money had corrupted much of their clergy, that there were abuses that needed addressing, reforms were ongoing in the Catholic Church. However, the Catholic Church also believed that when it came to doctrine, they had the truth, and the Counter-Reformation sought to double down on teaching their people theological truths and they embraced art to help them accomplish that task.

And so the story of the cleansing of the temple was also popular in Catholic churches as they saw the cleansing as a natural precursor to a revival within the church. Driving the money changers out of the temple, we see that money, power, and politics is at the root of the problem, both in Christ day, and in El Greco’s. As a result, El Greco has placed the scene, not in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem, but in a Renaissance Palace.

The message was that every new generation of believers has to ponder how the influence of power, money, and politics might be distorting the gospel and negatively impacting the health of the church. And so, if El Greco were painting this work today, what would be his setting? Where has money, politics, and power corrupted the gospel message?

Detail from El Greco's Cleansing of the TempleChrist

Christ is the prominent center of this work, everything else is in motion, rotating around him. He is the only figure dressed in red, traditionally understood to link to his humanity, and eventual sacrifice. We will return to the topic of sacrifice in a moment, but for now lets focus on Christ posture.

El Greco frequently made his people swirling, seemingly transforming into Spirit. We can see that here, both in this turning posture, but also in his feet. Christ’ feet do not look as if they are firmly standing on solid ground, instead he appears to be suspended in the space. This adds to the feel that we are viewing a spiritual, rather than physical, reality.

Christ hands are also key. In the one hand he is holding the whip of chords with an armed raised in punishment and judgement. At the same time, his other hand is down low, as if comforting the disciples to wait, that all will be well.

A divided canvas

El Greco has neatly divided the painting in two, with the left side filled with the money changers, and the right side filled with his disciples.

On the left, the den of thieves. Money changers have taken up their post in the temple. Known for cheating as they changed money out for the worshippers who were traveling to Jerusalem to make sacrifices, these men were profiting, in unethical ways, off of the spiritual work the Temple was to do. The audience of El Greco’s day would have immediately made the connection to the reforms the Catholic church had recently made to stop the sale of indulgences (forgiveness) and the various ways the church profited off of the spiritual work they had been entrusted with.

The people on the left are in various states of cringing, trying to escape, and reacting with terrorDetail from El Greco's Cleansing of the Temple

This contrasts with the right side of the canvas where the disciples watch the action. While obviously concerned, they appear to have no worries that Christ will turn on them. The disciple in white with his hand to his chest is John. Always painted as the youngest, and the beloved disciple, he appears to watch with concern for all involved. At the front, kneeling, is the apostle Peter.

Detail from El Greco's Cleansing of the Temple

Interestingly, Peter is larger than the other figures, if he stood he would tower over the rest. The device of using hieratic scale, or size indicating importance, had fallen out of favor during the Renaissance, but El Greco would have been familiar with it. Peter is the rock on which Christ will build his church, and according to tradition, the first Pope. Perhaps El Greco is making the point that as the leader of the church, Peter needs to be paying close attention to Christ response when power and money corrupt the role of the church.

Where are the animals

In the Biblical story the point of the money changers is that the people coming to the temple need to purchase animals for sacrifice. The Jews practiced a system of animal sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, and for those Jews that have traveled a great distance, and couldn’t bring animals with them, animals were for sale at the Temple. Most paintings of this scene include the animals, in fact, some of El Greco’s other works on the topic include animals.

It has been suggested that there are no animals here, because very shortly, animal sacrifices will no longer be needed. Once Christ has gone to the cross, and been raised from the dead, his sacrifice will cover all, there will be no need for animals to be sacrificed.

Bas reliefsDetail from El Greco's Cleansing of the TempleDetail from El Greco's Cleansing of the Temple

There are two bas reliefs at the very back of the building. These allude to the twin themes of punishment and redemption. The one on the left is the expulsion from Paradise, or Adam and Eve being removed from the Garden of Eden for their sin. This is the picture of judgement.

The relief on the right is the Old Testament story of the sacrifice of Abraham’s son. Abraham is told to sacrifice his son Isaac to God, but at the last moment God intervenes and provides an animal to be sacrificed in Isaac’s place. The story emphasizes that Abraham would hold nothing back, not even his beloved son. The relief foretells the coming crucifixion of Christ, where God has given his son to be sacrificed for the humanities sin.

Concluding thoughts

El Greco’s work resonates with us today as it is a warning about the inherent danger of money and power, particularly when combined with politics to corrupt. Here Christ teaches his disciples to speak truth to power, and to use power for good.

If you find El Greco interesting, here is one of my You Tube video’s on his Annunciation.

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