El Greco was born on the island of Crete and his real name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos. All of his works were signed with this name. However, when he arrived in Spain he was known simply as ‘The Greek’. El Greco had initially trained as an icon painter. This meant painting in a traditional Byzantine style, which was completely anti-naturalistic and regulated by Christian stereotypes.
Crete at that time was part of the Venetian Empire and El Greco spent three years there immersing himself in the art of the High Renaissance. He then moved to Rome, before finally arriving in Spain in 1577 where El Greco spent the rest of his life living and working in the ancient town of Toledo. Here, he found enough support from the local bishops and religious establishments to keep him busy for his entire career. There he transformed himself into one of the most original and radical interpreters of Catholic Counter- Reformation doctrine to have emerged in Europe during the sixteenth century.
Listed in the inventory of possessions compiled immediately following the artist’s death were four signed paintings titled Christ driving the Traders from the Temple. Made between about 1570 and sometime after 1610, two of the paintings date from the artist’s time in Italy and two from Spain. The successive versions illustrate El Greco’s marked progression from a student of the Italian High Renaissance to the idiosyncratic Spanish style.
The painting we are looking at here is the third in the series and the first El Greco painted after moving from Rome to Toledo. This painting differs significantly from the previous two where the emphasis shifts from classicism, anatomical drawing and linear perspective, to the artist’s concern with representing the subject’s essential human drama.
Described in all four Gospels, the story of Christ driving traders from the Temple in Jerusalem has been interpreted as both a warning against hypocrisy and the commerce of holy things and reminder that clerical abuses and heretical beliefs were a target of Christ’s wrath. The subject is rarely depicted as a stand-alone story in art. But it must have held a particular fascination for El Greco during the highly charged religious atmosphere of the Counter-Reformation in both Italy and Spain. Here Christ is shown flanked by the chastised traders on the left and the scrutinising Apostles on the right. El Greco clearly defines his figures and their contrasting actions. The artist also includes biblical episodes in the sculpted reliefs among the figures. On the left is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and on the right is the sacrifice of Isaac, an Old Testament story foreshadowing Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
For El Greco painting was not merely the process of imitating nature, instead it was about the transformation of the viewer. He achieved this through colour and an ability to evoke a supernatural source of light. He believed that these elements posed the greatest challenge to a painter, and once mastered they had it within their power to transcend what was merely seen. As El Greco saw it, neither life on earth or in heaven was static or immobile.
When you have finished looking at all the paintings in this room please move through to Landscape of the Picturesque to continue your audio tour.