Christ driving the Traders from the Temple by El Greco

El Greco

Christ driving the Traders from the Temple, c.1600, Oil on canvas, 106.3 x 129.7 cm, The National Gallery, London; Presented by Sir J.C. Robinson, 1895, NG1457, Photo: © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

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Space for the Holy

Commentary by

Solomon’s dedication of the Temple was the designation of sacred space, and what El Greco shows in this painting is the reclaiming of space as holy place. It is a subject to which he returned throughout his career. In this canvas the scene is sharply focused, and the extraneous references are reduced.

The spatial composition and bold colouring of Christ’s robe place him centre stage. His eyes are fixed on the traders, and his taut body captures a moment before there is another lash of the whip of cords. In the foreground is the upturned table of one of the money changers. To the left is a group of traders. They flinch and raise their arms and hands to protect themselves. To the right a group of Christ’s disciples are puzzled and amazed in equal measure. The painting crackles with emotional energy, and, as such, contrasts with the scene evoked in the account of Solomon offering his prayer of dedication in the first Temple. Solomon is humble and suppliant; Jesus is strident and insistent. He forcefully clears space for an encounter with the divine. But this was not to be, as it was at the Dedication of Solomon’s Temple, in the form of fire and cloud (2 Chronicles 5:14; 7:1).

The painting shows a woman carrying a basket on her head, walking through a clear architectural space on the far right. This graceful figure moving purposefully through an uncluttered space may well be a personification of grace. For in the compositional arrangement, the woman balances the figure of Christ (they seem almost to walk in step), and contrasts with the basket carriers of the left who assert a transactional relationship with God.

In this portrayal of the driving of the traders from the Temple, Christ signals a new divine economy of grace, a currency that is minted through the fate of his body, crucified and raised on the third day. For when Christ referred to the Temple in speaking of it being destroyed and rebuilt, he referred, according to John’s Gospel, to his body (John 2:21).

 

References

Lopera, Jose Alvarez (ed.). 1999. El Greco: Identity and Transformation (Skira: Madrid)


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