El Greco, Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple

Circa 1600
Oil on canvas, 106 x 129 cm
National Gallery, London

This is the third of at least four versions El Greco did of the story of Christ cleansing the temple, at four stages in his development as an artist. All four contrast the Old Law with the New. In all of them, El Greco ranges the apostles to the right of Christ, representing the New Law. To the left we always see an old man, associated with the Law in Paul's writings. In the two earliest paintings, the specific idea of Law is also suggested in the left foreground by a woman with a cage of doves (associated with the ritual of Purification at 40 or 80 days after a child's birth). She is presented in the manner of allegorical paintings of abstract qualities, and her déshabille associates the Law with the flesh, as Paul does. In the two earliest paintings, putti-like boys play in the right foreground. In the first, one of them is playing with coins – again, something associated with the Old Law. In the second, money is represented a bit more subtly, by a coinbox in the lower right of the composition.

The first two paintings make this central point in a quite "busy" manner, with lots of figures and lots of symbols to point the mind in the right direction. In the later two paintings, El Greco crops the picture and seeks to do the job more subtly. He replaces the dove woman with the coinbox from the second painting; it has fallen off an upturned table. In the painting shown here, low reliefs on the temple walls behind the figures represent the expulsion from Eden and the sacrifice of Isaac (again, strongly suggestive of the Old Law); but in the final version we see only the expulsion. El Greco gets down to the basics, with Christ as the New Man.

View the 1571-76 version
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Source: Web Gallery of Art