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The Merchants chased from the Temple

Jesus chasing the Merchants from the Temple

Domenikos Theotokópoulos called El Greco (1541-1614). The National Gallery – London. Around 1600.

Domenikos Theotokópoulos was born in late 1541 in Crete. He may have started to learn Greek icon painting and his abilities at painting may have been discovered in Greece. He arrived in Venice in his early twenties, which was quite logical when one remembers the maritime connections of Venice in that part of the Mediterranean. He may have been for a while a pupil of Titian and the way he prepared his panels with underlying covers of dark animal glues and a red gesso layer of ochre, may prove he knew Venetian ways of painting. In 1570 he was in Rome. While in Rome he painted a first version of ‘Christ and the Money Changers’, which is much less the true El Greco style than the picture we show.

‘Jesus chasing the Merchants from the Temple’ was made more than twenty years later. In Rome ruled Pope Pius V (1566-1572) and it seems that the unknown Greek Theotokópoulos proposed to the Pope to paint a better ‘Last Judgement’ than Michelangelo had done, and one more chaste in presentation. There had indeed been remarks on the nudity of Michelangelo’s figures of the ‘Last Judgement’ in the Sistine Chapel, there had been some talk of redoing the painting, until finally the Pope decided merely to have only the most intimate parts of the figures painted over. Theotokópoulos’ proposal more irritated the Papal court than it found approval. Maybe due to this the Greek painter left Rome for Spain.

Before Theotokópoulos left Rome he had appealed to the Royal Court of Spain for a job, but many other painters were working already in Madrid and he was turned down. After all he had no name and only his own high regard for himself as proof of his art. He was unsuccessful in Madrid but accepted an offer to paint an altarpiece in Toledo. And he stayed in Toledo.

Toledo was still a very rich town in the late 1570’s. It was a town of industries. There was a thriving arms industry; the swords of Toledo were world-famous. There were weavers too and silk manufactories; the Toledans worked at jewellery and ceramics. Besides the Court of Spain in Madrid only the Catholic Church was rich enough and avid enough for images and Toledo had hundreds of religious houses, abbeys and churches. After one picture came commission for another, so the painter who was by now called ‘El Greco’, the Greek, stayed in Toledo. And El Greco’s art remained almost exclusively devotional. The religious nature of Castille may have suited his own obsessional and passionate character with its hang for mystique. But El Greco also met and had Spanish humanists among his friends in Toledo.

El Greco continued to work in Toledo, for Madrid remained elusive. He did obtain an important commission from the Spanish Court already in 1580, a picture for a chapel of the Escurial Palace of Madrid. But King Philip II rejected the painting. That was not so surprising, as one glance at his pictures of those times may prove. El Greco’s paintings were radically different from anything Philip and his Court had seen until then and the courtiers could not see beyond tradition.

In 1585 El Greco moved into a large house, a small palace of the old Jewish quarter of Toledo. He remained to work there until his death in 1614. He died poor and debt-ridden for Toledo had constantly been losing its golden lustre and wealth so that commissions became fewer and fewer. Yet, El Greco loved Toledo as a few very touching pictures of the town he made may prove. He painted these views in his hard colours and of a Toledo under a very menacing thunderstorm sky. These images were only matched so much later, in the twentieth century, by Oskar Kokoschka who showed something of the spell that Toledo still displayed then, with its sun-scorched tiled roofs high over its countryside, closed but joyful and so bright in light. The view of Toledo indeed is dramatic as it lies on a granite layer surrounded on three sides by the Tagus River and protected by its walled fortifications. Toledo resembled Crete in more than one aspect. El Greco could feel at home here.

King Alphonso VI of Castille had conquered Toledo on the Moors in 1085. Toledo had become the capital of Castille but Philip II transferred his court to Madrid in 1559. That and other factors started the decline of the town. The Jews who had lived in large numbers in Spain since the beginning of our era were expelled already in 1492. A large community of Jews had contributed to the natural wealth of Toledo. The Moriscos, the remnants of the Moorish population of Spain had waged a rebellion against Philip II from 1568 to 1572. These Moors were converted to Christianism since long, but they had kept signs of their culture. From 1564 on King Philip‘s government forbade the Moriscos to wear arms, to speak their language, and even to close their doors. Morisco women were not allowed to wear their veils and the Moriscos could hold no slave anymore, especially none from Africa as they had been used to. Public bathhouses were closed and Moorish art and music was banned. When El Greco arrived in Spain there were almost no Jews or Moriscos left in the town. With them departed much of the town’s prosperity. And there was worse. Due to the import of gold and silver from South-America, prices soared in Spain at the beginning of the seventeenth century. That was not so bad for Spain’s interior agricultural economy but Spanish exports stagnated and hence its industry. And Spain was engaged in costly wars.

Spain had been part of the empire of Charles V and tried to keep up the lustre of that empire. King Philip wanted to keep his territories in the Netherlands, where Toledo’s Duke Don Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba, led the Spanish armies. The Netherlands was Protestant and ardently sought independence from Catholic Spain. The war lasted until the end of the sixteenth century and although Flanders was retained, the Netherlands was lost. Not all wars brought bad news. A Spanish, Venetian and Papal allied fleet had fought and stopped at the battle of Lepanto the Turkish invasion of the Mediterranean in 1571. Philip’s half-brother, Don Juan of Austria, had led the allied fleet. On Spain’s western border, the Duke of Alba entered Portugal in 1580 so that at the end of that year Philip II was proclaimed King of Portugal.

The wealth and the prestige meant in time also Spain’s demise so that the Toledo of El Greco impoverished. There is something ironic therefore in El Greco’s picture of ‘Christ chasing the merchants from the Temple’ for this was a moral lesson coming true. Spain had chased its Jewish and Morisco merchants and artisans for the sake of the purity of its Christian religion. Spain was over-zealous and the Inquisition courts ruled and condemned. El Greco would make a haunting portrait of a Grand-Inquisitor. But in chasing these people away, Spain had struck at its spinal chord. This and the economic crisis would end its power. And later it would not be able anymore to actively support its faith. In the meantime, extremely passionate religious scenes were the fashion in Toledo and throughout Spain and first Mannerist, the Baroque art delivered all the ingredients to serve the Royal Court of Madrid.

El Greco’s painting should firstly be seen not with our eyes accustomed to rapid and drastic changes in art, but with the eyes of the Spanish ruling class of the sixteenth century, with eyes that had known only the Gothic and the Renaissance. Art of Spain had been much influenced by the Flemish masters. Flanders and the Netherlands had been part of the German Empire, to which Spain also belonged, under Charles V. Several Flemish masters worked in Spain and through trade with Bruges, Spanish art had been linked to the North for many centuries already. The Court of Spain was extremely devote, so devote as to build its Royal Palace, the Escurial, as an unusual complex of palace, abbey and churches. The Court of Spain was traditional and conservative. When one looks as these people to El Greco’s work, one understands quickly why Philip II refused this artist’s work. And yet, the Escurial could have been a very special place adorned with El Greco’s extraordinary visions.

In ‘Christ chasing the Merchants from the Temple’, El Greco applied the vibrant, acid and hard colours that are his hallmark. Many have called these colours his own ‘Cretan’ colours and these colours probably also suit Toledo and its climate very well, as Toledo’s position in its landscape. Jesus stands in fierce red and bright colours, not in the deep sympathetic, warm red of his usual robe of love, but in a robe with hues of authority and divine wrath. He has snatched away a purse of gold and that gesture also condemns the men around him. Jesus is ready to strike, but being who he is he can only take away angrily but without violence. His gesture nevertheless remains a gesture of threat. Jesus looks at a man and that man – already at Jesus’ feet – recoils in evident fear and awe.

Other fiery colours are around Jesus. We find especially the yellow of El Greco’s lead and tin pigments. In fact, there are not so many brightly coloured surfaces in this painting, but a general background of non-committing brown and grey backgrounds enhances them so that the few coloured areas really well stand out to the viewer. These few colour zones support the structure and the symmetry of the picture.

In the right lower corner an old man is sitting on his knees, maybe a Saint Peter or an elderly priest of the Temple of Jerusalem. This man looks at Jesus and the yellow of his robe is answered by the yellow further along the right diagonal higher up. Here is the yellow of the robe of the man that reclines in fear of Jesus. Thus the harsh yellow areas stress the right diagonal and attention is led to Jesus who stands in the middle of the picture. On the other side of Jesus, on the right again, stands another man at level head with Jesus, also dressed in yellow. The two yellow surfaces on either side of Jesus now show the left diagonal. And the three yellow areas together form a triangle in which stands Jesus. This triangle is also lengthened towards the lower right, as Jesus’ figure is lengthened to enhance a feeling of spirituality.

On the extreme right, the upper right, stands a lady with a basket. She is dressed in a last almost yellow colour. This area finds symmetry in a red-yellow colour on the far left lower corner. The red-yellow is here on the back of a man who lifts a trunk from the ground. Remark how well El Greco structured these views under the left diagonal of the frame. On the left lower part, the diagonal starts and so a stooping figure indicates the low point and the money chest is on the ground close to the lowest point of the diagonal. The diagonal then grows over Jesus and is emphasised in its sense of elevation by the lady on the upper right. She does not stoop but has at her disposal the full length of the frame, so she stands and even has the basket on her head. El Greco was not just a wizard in colours. He had the genius of composition, of using plain and strong structure to enhance the harmony of his picture.

Still, colours more than lines form El Greco’s harmony. Look for instance at the men in green. These green areas also are symmetrical as to the centre of the picture, which is Jesus. And in this green again we find emphasis of oblique lines since on the right the greens are mainly on the back of a stooping man – again a low point – whereas to the left the green area is on a man who stands higher up and who is fleeing. This is also a stressing of the direction of the lines. The effect of fleeing and of lines growing to the upper border is underscored on the left – again – by a man wearing a basket on his head (right next to the man in green). So El Greco used the same effects and images twice, on the left in the man and on the right in the woman.

El Greco used symmetries in colours, symmetries in dynamism of lines and yet these lines are almost invisible. All is so seemingly natural and nervous as to be totally unexpected in near analysis. This structure forms the equilibrium of the picture. And equilibrium is needed, because especially in the left group of people movement is everywhere. El Greco used reclining persons, persons falling or lying on the ground, stooping figures. He used slanting lines here to indicate movement, clearly about as much as Caravaggio was doing in Rome. But it seems hardly possible for El Greco to have seen early Caravaggios, so we have here a genius painter inventing or discovering the same techniques of movement as Caravaggio in another country, approximately at the same time.

The blue colours also are supporting the symmetry. A lady lies on the ground in the left mass of people. Her blue-green cloak forms an area of colour, which is in symmetry with another surface in blue on the upper right, even some in the colours of the lady wearing a basket there. These blues follow the same aspiring left diagonal, over part of the dark blue cloak of Jesus.

Blue, green and yellow are the three basic hues. These surround Jesus like the Trinity and Jesus also stands - as we have seen – in a triangle of three yellow colours.

El Greco worked and re-worked his compositions. He made sometimes several smaller panels in wood before starting on his grander work and he painted very slowly, leaving his compositions untouched for days and then re-interrogating and changing the lines, forms and the colours. El Greco’s ‘Christ chasing the Merchants from the Temple’ is a seemingly impetuous, spontaneous picture, simple in structure since Jesus stands so obviously in the middle in splendid colours, but there is a lot more than that to El Greco’s work. We saw how this artist directed colours and lines to a lifting of the spirit, to an elevating concept of direction, drawing attention to Jesus’ face and to the high.

El Greco placed the Temple scene in a Roman building and through the open arch we can see what is almost a Venetian view for the large houses have balconies as El Greco certainly saw on Venice’s Canal Grande. A patch of open sky leads the view to the far and El Greco thus created depth behind Jesus. El Greco was not much concerned with perspective but he did use some receding lines, even if they do not all go to the correct point. The eye’s point of the perspective should be situated somewhere to the left of Jesus, but still rather high, at approximately the height of Jesus. Such a high viewpoint stresses the grandeur of Christ since the viewer seems to look from beneath, an effect still more enhanced by Jesus’ elongated figure. We find such elongated figures in Gothic, but more so in Italian Mannerism and in painters like Jacopo Pontormo and later Parmigianino. El Greco indeed is called a Mannerist painter for these style effects, but whether he had seen this style before and absorbed it or invented it alone remains to be proven.

The long figure of Jesus in the fierce red colours splits the painting literally in two halves. On the left we find younger, unbearded men and nude figures. On the right the personages are elder, and all fully clad. Jesus snatches away money from the new generation of the left and seems to want to hand it over to the right. Depicting elder men on the right and younger men on the left was not a new idea. Sandro Botticelli had already done just the same in one of his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican of Rome. Did El Greco remember this picture, and maybe unknowingly, copied the idea?

The men on the right talk, discuss, plead and interrogate whereas on the left is work, but also fear and awe. These people seem to be struck by an invisible light from above that blinds them. Some of the men cover their eyes or hide. Has El Greco implied here that reason and wisdom should prevail over the new mood? Or is the spiritual world condemning the already poor and destitute left side? The mass on the left indeed is poorly dressed, not richly clad, as moneychangers would be. Here are only poorer merchants, people with baskets from the countryside. It may be ironic too that Jesus seems to be throwing these out of the Temple. Els Greco made almost only devotional pictures, but he was also much a Humanist as other pictures prove. He may have introduced in this painting some conflict with the message of the New Testament. Jesus definitely seems to prefer the elderly, the wise and the worldly. El Greco was turning on sixty when he made this painting. In his earlier picture of 1572-1574 made in Rome, he indeed showed a lady in opulent and splendid clothes on the left and almost all figures are massed on that left. In that picture a nude woman is on the right. The elder picture was made when El Greco was much younger and still more in the influence of Venetian and Roman mannered art. There is more emphasis on Roman architecture in that picture, more show of Corinthian colonnades and of the grandeur of the palace-temple. In our painting we see a more powerful scene, emotions more direct and unhindered by unnecessary detail. And El Greco reached his startling use of violent, acid colours. El Greco’s management of emotion was clearer by 1600; his lines and structure more mature and devoid of decorative elements.

With the ‘Jesus chasing the Merchants from the Temple’ El Greco made a picture that is already very Baroque in theatricality and pathos, in movement and tension. In his depiction El Greco joined Mannerism, especially in the elongated view of Jesus. He applied very rough brushstrokes as can be seen in the way he handled the red robe of Jesus. All the strokes of a hard brush in thick paint, maybe oil paint enhanced with wax to make it thicker and more tactile, are visible in the cloak around Jesus’ arm. El Greco also knew where and how to use texture. Here he seems to have wanted to give an impression of a rapid work, of rapid brushstrokes, of a nonchalant and impetuous work. But El Greco knew very well how to control all these elements of the art of painting. He showed impetuosity by texture but he also surprises the attentive viewer with a sophisticated structure and the composition of a genius maker of images. He rebukes the viewer with his hard and strange colours, but these create a harmony by themselves and of course a style no other artist has dared to copy. There are only a few painters who so powerfully mastered their own particular style: Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Pontormo, Poussin and Rembrandt, but not many more.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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