Christ driving the Traders from the Temple (1600) by El Greco
Interpretation of Mannerist Biblical Painting

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Christ driving the Traders from
the Temple
By El Greco.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Christ driving the Traders from the Temple (1600)


Interpretation of Other Paintings by El Greco


Name: Christ driving the Traders from the Temple (1600)
Artist: El Greco (1541-1614)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: History painting
Movement: Mannerism
Location: National Gallery, London

For analysis of other important pictures from the Mannerist era, please see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For analysis of paintings by
Mannerist artists like
El Greco, see
our educational articles:
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Analysis of Christ driving the Traders from the Temple by Caravaggio

Based on a popular theme in Biblical art - the Cleansing of the Temple - Christ driving the Traders from the Temple is one of El Greco's best-known religious paintings and a major work of Catholic Counter-Reformation art from the end of the 16th century. El Greco painted at least four other versions of the story, all entitled "Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple". They include: a 1568 version, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; a 1570 version, now in the Minneapolis Institute of Art; a 1600 version which is part of the Frick Collection in New York; and a 1609 version in the Church of San Gines, Madrid. Like the painting in London, all these works are executed in El Greco's unique style of Mannerist painting, marked by its elongated figures, dramatic use of colour, and an ascetic edge characteristic of Spanish painting of the late 16th century.

Christ driving the Traders from the Temple (completed in Toledo around 1600) depicts the story of the Cleansing or Purification of the Temple, which occurs in all four Gospels: Matthew 21:12–17; Mark 11:15–19; Luke 19:45–48; and John 2:13–16. The scene takes place in the porch of the Temple in Jerusalem, which housed a market and a money changing facility. The picture shows the red-robed figure of Christ scourging the traders and money changers, declaring: "My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves."

The painting is dominated by the central figure of Christ. On the left, we see the merchants; on the right, the Apostles. In the background, there are two stone bas-reliefs which alluding to the twin themes of punishment and redemption: the relief on the left shows the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise (signalling the expulsion of the merchants); the one on the right illustrates the Sacrifice of Abraham's son Isaac (foretelling the sacrifice of Christ himself on the cross). But Christ remains the key figure, inflicting punishment on the traders with his right hand, while signalling reassurance to the apostles with his left.

The picture borrows some elements from engravings by High Renaissance artists, and especially from Renaissance drawings by Michelangelo. Even so, it is very much an El Greco creation. The elongated figure of Christ is highlighted in red - the only use of red in the picture - while further isolated from the others by the strongest highlights and the blackest shadows. He is the hub around which the others rotate.

It is a minimalist composition, with none of the sacrificial oxen, sheep or doves of the Biblical story. Moreover, the ranks of merchants and money-changers have been pared down to a few cringing individuals and a single person struggling to lift a box of coins. To accentuate the dream-like quality of the picture, the temple interior is illuminated by a ghostly light, which makes the coloured robes worn by Christ and others appear to flicker with an internal charge. Jagged blues and acid yellows combine in different patterns against an all-pervasive grey background, which pulls together the flesh-colours and the stone of the building. The figures are painted larger than life-size and the scale is non-naturalistic. The kneeling figure of Saint Peter would, if stood upright, tower over the others.



The painting has two basic dimensions. On the one hand, the chosen subject - the cleansing of the temple - was a common metaphor at the time for the purification of the Roman Catholic Church, as called for by both the Inquisition and the Counter Reformation. The targets being internal heresy and external barbarians. In the fervent, fundamentalist atmosphere of Philip II's Spain, this would have been an unmistakeable message.

On the other hand, the visionary and unworldly nature of the painting reflects El Greco's immersion in the deeply religious environment of Toledo. Indeed, such was the influence of its devotional intensity that he duly became a key representative of Spanish mysticism and its most devout followers. Thus his style of painting with its inner radiance, flickering light, and other-worldly forms and colours, seems on the point of transforming matter into pure spirit. To put it another way: El Greco believed passionately that other-worldly imagery was a better aid to spiritual understanding and faith than more realistic naturalism.

The artistic influences on his painting came from several different sources. The traditions of Byzantine art (elongated forms and flattened picture plane), for instance, which he absorbed during his youthful study of icons on the island of Crete, remained with him for the rest of his life. His later knowledge of Venetian altarpieces, together with his experience of Venetian painting by the likes of Tintoretto (1518-94) and Jacopo Bassano (1515-92), also had a lifelong impact, as did certain Mannerist features in the work of Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Parmigianino (1503-40) - see, for instance, his masterpiece: Madonna With the Long Neck (1535, Uffizi, Florence) - which he picked up in Rome.

Interpretation of Other Paintings by El Greco

• The Disrobing of Christ (1577)
Toledo Cathedral.

• The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586-88)
Church of Santo Tome, Toledo.

View of Toledo (1595-1600)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Portrait of a Cardinal (1600)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Portrait of Felix Hortensio Paravicino (1605)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


• For the interpretation of other Mannerist religious paintings, see: Homepage.

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