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Christ Driving the Money Changers From the Temple:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts' painting is the second of at least six versions of this scene. El Greco returned to this subject on various occasions throughout his life, keeping the compositional plan, but varying the proportions and allowing his technique to become progressively more free and vigorous. The constant repetition of a rather unusual subject has been related to the Counter-Reformation spirit which El Greco would have found in Rome in the decade following the completion of the Council of Trent. The MIA painting is believed to be one of four depictions of the Expulsion recorded in the first inventory of El Greco's estate prepared by his son Jorge Manuel in 1614; these four are listed again, with specific measurements, in the second inventory of 1621. These inventory citations indicate that El Greco brought the painting with him from Italy to Toledo, and retained it in his own collection until his death in 1614.

The MIA painting is one of two signed versions. It is signed on the step at left center in Greek capitals: "Domenikos Teotokaopoulos Kres E Poiei"-"Domenikos Theotokopoulos the Cretan made this." The exact date of this painting continues to be the subject of conjecture, but the consensus seems to be in favor of a date immediately following El Greco's arrival in Rome, while he was still influenced by Venetian trends of composition but also inspired by Roman accomplishments, notably Raphael's. The painting, therefore, has special value as an illustration of El Greco's work during a transitional phase in his development, before he took up residence in Spain and developed his later better-known style. This work is considered to be the most important work to survive from El Greco's years in Rome. But because it was painted when his style most clearly exhibited traits of Venetian Mannerism absorbed in the years immediately preceding, we can consider it to be a Mannerist painting of the Venetian school.

Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple is based on an incident narrated in all four gospels of the New Testament: Matthew 21:12-15; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45; John 2:13-16. According to the account by St. John, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a Sunday and the next day went to the Temple. "In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money-changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the doves, 'Take these things away; you shall not make my Father's house a house of trade.'" This is an unusual episode, for it is the only time in his recorded lifetime that Christ resorted to physical punishment.

This violent scene was pre-figured in the Old Testament by the "Chastisement of Heliodorus," who was expelled by flagellant angels from the Temple of Jerusalem, whose treasures he was attempting to steal.

The depiction of the Expulsion was promoted by the Council of Trent and remained popular during the Counter Reformation. The Catholic Church interpreted this biblical event as symbolic of the purification of the church accomplished by its own internal reform movement

The painting depicts Christ's anger at finding the temple used as a marketplace. Christ is shown slightly off-center, with a whip raised over his left shoulder. He is precariously balanced on one foot, prepared to lash out at the surprised merchants who recoil in fear. Those nearest him attempt to protect themselves, with upraised arms, while others try to flee, taking their wares with them. Overturned baskets, broken eggs, and caged doves lie at their feet. The vertical element of the figure of Christ separates the very active sinners on the left from the inactive group of disciples to the immediate right of him, who calmly observe the event. On the far right of the painting, a young woman rushes her nude infant away from the disturbance, while another child on the ground plays with gold coins and glass goblets, which were presumably scattered by hastily departing merchants.

Christ is seen against an archway opening upon a Renaissance city view. The Temple portico is classical in style and resembles a gallery. Two men are seen in a dimly lit chamber to the upper right.

In the lower right-hand corner, El Greco pays homage to the four Italian artists who most influenced him-Titian, Michelangelo, Giulio Clovio, and Raphael-by including recognizable portraits of all of them. This is the only version of this subject in which El Greco included his fellow artists in this manner.1These portrait heads occupy a separate section of canvas, and the join to the larger canvas can be seen by the naked eye. It has been suggested that this of four upright figures was not part of the original design, but was added by El Greco in attempt to stabilize the composition, which was swinging too far to the left. Presumably it replaced a less successful element, which he cut out.

As in the case of Tintoretto, El Greco freely appropriated sources from other sources. The major Raphael source for the panel is his School of Athens (in the Vatican Stanze) from which the general setting is largely derived, as well as the pose and placement of several figures. El Greco, however, has compacted Raphael's expansive and airy composition into a single spatial plane. The monumental reclining female is derived from a Roman statue in the Vatican, The Sleeping Ariadne. Some traditional symbolic motifs have been injected, however incongruous, such as the cage of doves—here symbols not of peace but probably of carnal love.

Many aspects of the painting are deliberately incongruous. The biblical scene, which took place in the Temple in Jerusalem, is set in what appears to be a Roman basilica. Venice is in the background. We would expect that the figures surrounding Christ would all be contemporaries of Christ, but El Greco has placed himself in the crowd (he is the tall man in the turban) as well as some of his contemporaries. The child with the wine glass on the right of the canvas suggests the image of Bacchus, but why is it included? Doves are a symbol of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Should we associate the woman with the birdcage with the Greek goddess? What are classical deities and 16th-century artists doing in a biblical painting? In the distant region of the corridor at the right are unidentified figures having the substance of phantasms, reminiscent of those in the landscape background of the Tintoretto painting. These inconsistencies, the asymmetrical composition, visual distortions, and jarring colors all contribute to convey El Greco's view of a disrupted world.

El Greco's choice of colors enhances the sense of chaos he has already accomplished with line and composition. Notice how jarring and vivid the colors are compared to the more stable reds and blues in the Portrait of a Cardinal in his Study attributed to Lorenzo Costa. In place of the solid block of red with its carefully blended shades that we see in the cardinal's red robe, El Greco has chosen to use many different tints of red (which range from light pink to deep maroons) within the robes of the figures (for example the robe of Christ and dress of the woman with doves) and many tints of blue and green in other parts of the clothing

Christ, the main actor in the drama, is placed off center. He is the archetypal example of the figura serpentinata, his body twisting feverishly. The swirl of movement his body initiates is continued and intensified by the recoiling figures on the left side, which is halted by the vertical column formed by the calm disciples on his other side. The mass of figures creates a strong pull towards the left of the canvas, leaving an essentially empty area on the right. This extreme instability is further intensified by the many directions in which the figures move. Counter movements run along the strong diagonals formed by bodies. Among these note the diagonal line of the strangely serene seated woman at lower left, and the old man with basket seated on a step-each a variant of the figura serpentinata. Notice how much movement is thus directed away from the center of the canvas and away from the figure of Christ. Notice also how lines of pavement create a sense of movement down a long and seemingly endless gallery on the right, interrupted only a pair of insubstantial figures scurrying in yet another direction out of the picture plane.

Distortion of Figures
Not only are the figures massed together, but they are posed in highly awkward positions. Their bodies are twisted and contorted into positions that would be nearly impossible to assume or to maintain. The resultant sense of confusion is further reinforced by the unnatural proportions of several figures. For example, notice the distorted leg muscles of the man who recoils from Christ's whip. In addition, the woman with the doves in the left foreground would be extremely tall if she were to stand up. The length of her thigh is excessively long while the longer portion of her leg is shortened. Her head is also very small in proportion to the rest of her body. Also notice the manner in which the artist placed her hand upon her chest. This position is not a naturalistic one, but one common to Mannerist painting. (The same gesture may be observed in the figure of Mary in the Tintoretto.)

Manipulation of Space
Tintoretto has used monumental architecture to define the setting of a vast temple, yet he confines the crowd of figures to a space far too narrow to accommodate both them and the massive pillars. There are two conflicting vanishing points: one presumably in the horizon behind Christ's head, and another in the depths of the corridor at right. The figure on the extreme left border is cut off, while the grouping of four artists in the lower right are even more radically cut off; they appear to rest in bust form on the pavement.

The surfaces of the fabrics blaze with reflected light, reinforcing the feeling of anger. The light that spotlights Christ and the figures surrounding him does not have a logical source. The sunset we see in the background bears no relationship to the light which falls on these figures. They seem to be lit by a stream of light from the right, for which there is no plausible source.

Spiritual Intensity
The atmosphere of intense anger that El Greco achieves in this painting is a foretaste of the surreal vision that we associate with El Greco that evolved later on during his years in Spain. At this point in his career, however, he is still depicting tangible, weighty human beings and he is still emphasizing the human nature of Christ. Later his paintings become incandescent visions of transcendental experiences, in which illusionism and rational relationships are abandoned.

This painting, therefore, has special value as an illustration of El Greco's work during a transitional phase in his development, before he took up residence in Spain and developed his mature style for which he is better known. At this time, he was inspired by Raphael, but greatly influenced by Venetian painting. Notice the similarities in style between this work and the painting by Tintoretto. The paint is applied in undisguised brushstrokes using resonant, at times unnatural colors. El Greco's mastery of Venetian brushwork is also evident: note the virtuoso indications of shadow in the draperies and the brushed contours of limbs, making them project. The focal point is off-center.

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, who was called El Greco (The Greek), was born in Crete in 1541. El Greco received a classical education in philosophy, theology, literature, and history, which were interests that he pursued throughout his life. He also studied painting at one of the many workshops which flourished in Crete, then a Venetian possession, where he produced religious icons in the medieval Byzantine style.

It is believed that El Greco left his home in about 1560 to study in Venice with Titian. From that great master, he derived his brilliant use of color and love for incorporating architecture into his compositions. In 1570, he traveled to Rome where he was befriended by the mannerist Giulio Clovio, and profoundly inspired by the intense spiritualism and dramatic fervor of Michelangelo's late works.

Between 1575 and 1577, El Greco settled permanently in Toledo, Spain, which was the acknowledged center of the Catholic Church's Counter-Reformation movement. In Spain, he concentrated on painting religious subjects and soon received several commissions which assured his artistic success. It was in Spain that his style took on the more extreme characteristics associated with his later works.

This frame is Italian, made about 1600. It was selected from the museum's frame collection for this painting, because it corresponds closely to the date of the painting. Panels were added to the sides to enlarge the frame to fit this canvas.

Encyclopedia of World Art, Vol. VI, pp. 835-6.

Fleming, William, Arts and Ideas, New York, 1963.

Golden Age of Spanish Painting, Royal Academy of Arts, 1976, #6.

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin, XIII, February 1924, pp. 10-13.

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin, XXX, June 7, 1941, pp. 110-113.

Murray, Linda, The High Renaissance and Mannerism.

Spetsieri-Beschi, Katerina, Domenikos Theotokopoulous - El Greco.

Trapier, Elizabeth Du Gue, El Greco in the Farnese Palace, Rome.

Further Bibliography:
Waterhouse, E. K., "El Greco's Italian Period," Art Studies, Vol. 8, Part I, Cambridge, 1930.

Eisler, Colin, Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian. Oxford, Phaidon, 1977, pp. 191-193.

El Greco of Toledo, The Toledo Museum of Art; Museo del Prado, Madrid; The National Gallery of Art, Wash., DC; The Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas, Texas. 1982/83. Exhibition catalogue no. 3, p. 277 (New York Graphic Society and Little Brown & Co.,

The Dictionary of Art, vol. 13, pp.339-345.

1517 Beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
1543 Copernicus published Concerning the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres.
1545-63 Council of Trent.

Birth/ Death Dates of Artists

1452-1519 Leonardo da Vinci
1483-1520 Raphael
1475-1564 Michelangelo
c. 1490-1576 Titian
1511-1574 Vasari
1518-1594 Tintoretto
1541-1614 El Greco
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Compare this painting to The Portrait of a Cardinal in His Study, attributed to Costa, to identify the major characteristics of Renaissance and Mannerist art.

  1. El Greco was greatly influenced in his use of color and loose brushstroke by Titian (compare to Titian's The Temptation of Christ.) The two figures on a severe diagonal at the left recall the youth in Michelangelo's ceiling fresco of the Sistine Chapel near the depiction of the Sacrifice of Noah. Clovio was El Greco's friend and protector in Rome, who recommended him as an excellent painter to Cardinal Farnese. In addition, it is said that El Greco's handling of perspective was derived from Clovio's miniatures. Raphael's influence is noticeable in the painting's architectural setting.
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Source: Docent Manual entry for El Greco, <i>Christ Driving the Money Changers From the Temple,</i> The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009