Day 19 – El Greco, Christ driving the Traders from the Temple, about 1600, National Gallery, London.
Originally posted on 6 April 2020
The Social Media are curious beasts – you know that people are out there, but you don’t always know where they are, or how present they are. So it’s been a great joy to see ‘comments’ and ‘likes’ from people I haven’t seen in person or heard from for quite a while – thank you! One of them recently reminded me of a time we looked at El Greco together, so I’m going to do the same today. And as, in terms of Holy Week, Christ has just entered into Jerusalem, this painting would seem the obvious choice: one of the first things he does is to drive the Traders from the Temple. Like the Entry into Jerusalem (#POTD 20) it is an event that occurs in all four gospels. According to Matthew 18:12-13:
‘Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, and said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves’.
As so often, the text explains so much of what El Greco has painted, but not how he has painted it. He produced at least four versions of the subject, which are like a series of variations on a theme, with the basic elements in place, and different characters and props popping in and out – some have the doves, some, like this, an overthrown table lying in the foreground so it cannot be missed. But in all, Jesus is central, his right arm wrapped around his chest ready to unleash the most almighty blow to the recalcitrant traders, some of whom cling on, while others can’t get out fast enough. Within this melee, and despite the extremity of his gesture, Christ maintains an otherworldly calm – undoubtedly because, let’s face it, he is supposed to be otherworldly. However, his appearance here could only have been painted by this particular artist, with his own particular history.
I’ve always been intrigued by his name. He was born Doménikos Theotokópoulos, and trained as an Orthodox icon painter. At the age of 26, in 1567, he moved to Venice, where it seems that the Italians couldn’t say Doménikos Theotokópoulos, so they called him ‘The Greek’ to distinguish him from the other artists whose names they couldn’t pronounce, or who didn’t have more than one name, like Paul from Verona (more about him another day). The Greek moved on to Rome three years later, and then, in 1577, headed to Spain where he passed the rest of his life. So what intrigues me about his name? If ‘El Greco’ means ‘The Greek’, what language is that? ‘Greco’ is Italian, whereas ‘El’ is Spanish – so he picked things up along the way. Or that’s what I always used to think. I’ve just found an English-Venetian translator on the internet, and lo and behold, as I had begun to suspect, ‘El’ is also ‘The’ in the Venetian dialect – which is still widely spoken today. Having said that, he wasn’t even Greek – he grew up on Crete, which at the time was part of the Venetian Republic. However, it was common parlance to call any member of the Orthodox church ‘Greek’.
Nevertheless, his history explains his style. His work is entirely idiosyncratic, and influenced very few of his peers – it didn’t really hit home until the 20th Century, Picasso’s blue period being just one of the modernist embodiments of his etiolated forms. He combines the detached otherworldliness of Orthodox painting with the dramatic stylisation and rich colouration of the Venetian painting he saw on his arrival there. He was especially influenced by the work of Tintoretto, who uses similar contrasts of light and shade, expressive manipulation of human proportions, and exaggerated perspectives. For El Greco, it is so obvious that Christ is not truly of this world that his feet barely seem to touch the ground.
El Greco’s Venetian sojourn still clings on in the background. If you look out of the archway in the second picture, the buildings you can see could so easily be palaces on the Grand Canal. What you can also see in this detail is the relief sculpture with which the artist has decorated the Temple – completely against the descriptions in the Old Testament, and in contravention of the Second Commandment. It is very sketchily painted, but just clear enough to enable you to see an old man with his arm raised, a boy kneeling in prayer, and an angel flying above. It is the story of Abraham and Isaac. Having been given a son he had long longed for, some years later Abraham is asked for a sacrifice to prove his love of God. He promises anything, only to be told he should sacrifice his dearly beloved son. Reasoning that God had given him, and now should have him back, Abraham reluctantly agrees. He heads off with everything needed for the ceremony, to the accompaniment of his young son asking what beast they would actually kill. On arrival at the place appointed, he has raised his hand to strike the fatal blow, only for an angel to stop him, and point to a ram caught in a thicket. This would be a more suitable sacrifice now that Abraham’s love for God was proved. For Christians this story from the Jewish Scriptures had undoubted significance, as it tells of a Father prepared to sacrifice his Son, in the same way that God the Father was prepared to sacrifice his only begotten Son – the very essence of the Easter story. So it’s inclusion here is undoubtedly relevant. Indeed, it is doubly relevant. Muslims believe that the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem marks the site where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac. And the Dome of the Rock is built on the site of the Temple of Solomon – so it was here that the sacrifice was of Isaac was supposed to happen.
It’s not the only sculpture El Greco includes. The third picture shows the relief on the other side of the arch, and although it is again painted remarkably freely, it is still clear enough to identify. Like the other, it includes an angel. In this case it is the Archangel Michael (#POTD 5), and he is expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Again a reference to Jewish Scripture sheds light on the Gospel. For early Christians it was essential to prove that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, so they combed through the Old Testament to find every conceivable reference to events in the New, coming up with some that would be unexpected. It was clear to them that the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden was directly equivalent to the expulsion of the traders from the Temple – malefactors have no place in the House of God. El Greco makes this parallel explicit by arranging the figures themselves in parallel: the angle that Adam and Eve lean as they are beaten out of Eden is exactly the same as the sway of some of the traders as they shy away from Jesus’s blows. The implication is that the Temple is a manifestation of Heaven on Earth, and as such it has the same ethos as many churches: they are (or can be) a representation of Paradise.
These two relief sculptures were invented by El Greco to add meaning to the story, but he makes reference to another sculpture, a real one, hidden away as one of the actors in the drama. Behind the man wrapped around with yellow fabric just to our left of Jesus, a figure has fallen to the ground, possibly female, with a blue skirt and white blouse. She is inappropriately dressed for the temple, and seems to lounge on her basket, her left hand wrapped around her head, as if she is shielding herself from Jesus. This pose is taken from a Classical sculpture of Ariadne in the Vatican museums: you can see it in the fourth picture. Not many people get to see it nowadays, as it is in a room just off the flow of the tourist tide, and roped off. I was once lucky enough to catch a glimpse when I was taking a group on what was called a ‘semi-private tour’, being led into rooms by the security guard accompanying us and not knowing exactly what would be in them. It was a pleasant surprise, as it used to be one of the most famous sculptures in Rome, near the top of the list of Things You Must See for the aristocratic 18th Century Grand Tourists and their middle class successors in the 19th Century. Dorothea sees it in George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’, although she was clearly unimpressed. When two observers find her, ‘She was not looking at the sculpture, probably not thinking of it: her large eyes were fixed dreamily on a streak of sunlight which fell across the floor’. Eliot’s point was presumably that Dorothea was not interested in art, and in the way that women have been objectified, but, as a more ‘natural’ creature herself, not to mention a modest Protestant, was more interested in the realities of the natural world.
I do find myself increasingly looking out of the window at the gradually burgeoning trees, the emboldened birds – and the streaks of sunlight. But for El Greco, the choice of the Ariadne (once thought to be Cleopatra) as a model for this figure is a reminder that he had been to Rome, an indication that he was an artist and knew the art of others, and a subtle hint that this was a non-Christian tradition that was not worthy to remain in the temple. It’s odd to think that the churches – and museums – will all be empty this Easter, but it is far better to stay at home enjoying the streaks of sunlight. We are lucky that we can also enjoy great works of art online as well.