Jesus Cleanses the Temple: Art for Holy Week (El Greco)

Cher’s Famous Art

28 March 2021

“Christ Cleansing the Temple” (D.C.)

“Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple” (London)

“Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple” (Mia, Mpls)

“Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple” (Spain)

Travel Tips

Domenikos Theotokopoulos, El Greco “The Greek”

Holy Week for Christians is the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday–and the events of this week have provided artists with subjects to fill galleries of art. Seen here, El Greco visited this subject in four different oil paintings. Each one is similar, yet uniquely different, as I’ll share below.

El Greco, “The Greek,” is the most famous Spanish painter of the era, but, as his nickname suggests, he was actually Greek, born in Greece as Domenikos Theotokopoulos. He emigrated to Italy as a young man before settling in Spain in his 30s, living in Toledo for the rest of his life. Absorbing the influences of the art of these areas produced, we see elements of a strong blending of Byzantine, Venetian and Mannerist in his work.

His paintings are intensely emotional which appealed to Spanish piety. The use of strong dark/light values within his paintings, his mastery of color, and the elongation in the portrayal of his bodies are the elements I find the most fascinating. It is as if the figures in his art are stretched vertically, but at the same time remain proportional, creating this forceful power within each painting.

Church History has also been impacted by the subject of these paintings. Prompted by the Council of Trent, the attempt of the Catholic church to purify itself after the Protestant Reformation is symbolized in the cleansing of the temple.

Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), Minneapolis Minnesota

Holy Week

Holy Week dates vary from year to year, based on the Jewish Calendar and its observation of the pivotal event of the Jewish Passover. New Testament Scripture indicates that Jesus and His disciples had a jam-packed schedule during this particular week which was to be the final week of the earthly life of Jesus Christ. One of the events, recorded in all four Gospels, is when Christ drove the money changers/traders out and cleansed the Temple. As noted, El Greco visited this subject in four different oil paintings over 40 years.

Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN, USA

“Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple” 1570, oil on canvas, 46″ x 59″

El Greco’s full Greek name is on the step in the lower center of the painting just under the feet of Jesus. Unique to this painting, this is a detail one can only see live and in-person, not in a picture.

Four Famous Friends

I love how El Greco incorporated the portraits of four famous artists who influenced him: Titian, Michelangelo, Giulio Clovio, and Raphael.

My Favorite

This is my favorite of the four renditions El Greco painted, probably because it is at the Mia, my home base, so I have studied it often and know it well! The Mia painting is seen here with one of my students.

El Greco’s use of Value is phenomenal! Note the dark/light values of white/pink/red as seen in Christ’s robe.

For more info on art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, see my blog highlighting its masterpieces.

Holy Week for Jesus & His Disciples

For Jesus, the events began early in the week as he and his disciples settled into Bethany, a village less than two miles from Jerusalem. The terrain between the two places is hilly so while not a quick or easy walk, it is in fairly close proximity. Bethany was home to Mary, Martha and Lazarus, close friends of Jesus, so it provided a good home-base for participating in the activities in Jerusalem.

Highlights of Holy Week Events

The Triumphal Entry (Palm Sunday) of Jesus into Jerusalem marks the start of this eventful week. Perched on the back of a lowly donkey, he rides down the steep descent of the Mount of Olives. Shouting “Hosanna!” people lined the path, spreading the road with cloaks and branches. This fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, signifying the beginning of the end of his earthly ministry.

Later that week, Jesus and His disciples observed the Jewish Passover which coincides with Maundy Thursday, commemorated by the Washing of the Feet and the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples. (Read more about this ceremony in my blog next week on the Last Supper.) The week culminated with the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ (Good Friday) and His bodily Resurrection (Easter Sunday).

Jesus Cleanses the Temple

One of the important events of this week and in the life and ministry of Christ is the Cleansing of the Temple, also known as Christ Driving the Money-Changers out of the Temple. This event occurred early in the week on one of their visits to the temple and is recorded in all four Gospels (Matthew 21:12-13, mark 11:15-18, Luke 19:45-46, and John 2:13-17).

“My House…a Den of Thieves & Robbers”

Jesus entered into the temple area on one of his visits to Jerusalem early in the week prior to Passover. He was absolutely appalled when he found the area filled with a bustling market place of men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at the tables exchanging money. (Because the Jewish “tourists” to Jerusalem not only needed animals to offer as a sacrifice for Passover, they also arrived with foreign currency that needed to be exchanged. What a perfect opportunity for business entrepreneurs!)

In his angry response, Jesus was not only reacting to the transactions (ripping off the tourists in the “den of thieves”); people needed the goods being sold. Jesus was primarily reacting to the place of the sales: the temple area. As always, he used the occasion as a teaching opportunity, “Is it not written: My house will be called a House of Prayer for all nations? But you have made it “a den of robbers.”” (Matthew 21: 12-13; Jeremiah 7:11) These business transactions had no place in and were violations to the holiness of the Temple.

“Get out of My House!”

Jesus made a whip out of cords, clearly seen in use in all four of El Greco’s paintings, and used it to drive out both those who were buying and selling there, as well as the sheep and cattle. He scattered the coins of the money changers; he overturned their tables and benches of those selling doves. “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:13-17) He forbade anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.

The other three renditions of this event by El Greco can be seen in Washington, D.C., London, England and Madrid, Spain.

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. USA

“Christ Cleansing the Temple” (c. 1568) oil on panel, 25 3/4″ x 32 3/4″

The earliest of the four, the complicated perspective and elaborate architecture show the Venetian influence on El Greco’s portrayal of the scene.

The setting obviously does not reflect the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem but rather classical grandeur of an Italian Renaissance palace.

National Gallery, London, England

“Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple” 1600, oil paint, 42″ x 51″

Using theatrical gestures and intense colors, El Greco expresses a scene of chaos and disruption. This one is the closest in composition to the one at the Mia.

To reinforce the sinfulness of the trader’s actions, and unique to this painting, is the sculpture of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (upper left corner).

Church of San Gines, Madrid, Spain

“Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple” (1609) oil on canvas, 42″ x 41″

Distinctively different from the other three paintings, this one is a bit more crowded and enclosed with more ornate architecture than the other three. I find his reds and golds much less colorful.

However, the intensity of the chaos and fury prevails. The extreme elongation of not only the body of Jesus, but also the statue in the upper left corner, is significant.

And the rest is history. . .

Events that followed during the balance of this infamous Holy Week were set in full motion. The chief priests and the teachers of the law were very upset when they heard this and began looking for a way to kill him. They feared Jesus and the impact he was having on the crowd of people who were amazed at his teaching.

Scripture tells us that by the end of the week, Jesus had indeed been killed, crucified on Roman cross. However, we can rejoice that His Story did not end here! After three days he arose from the grave and is alive today!

TRAVEL TIPS: It has been my privilege to have seen 3 of the 4 of El Greco’s renditions of this scene. The one in Spain is still on my bucket list! However, if you get a chance to see any of them in person, they are worth the effort! They have a much better impact in person than in print!

  • USA – Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • USA – National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
  • England – National Gallery, London
  • Spain – Church of San Gines, Madrid

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2 thoughts on “Jesus Cleanses the Temple: Art for Holy Week (El Greco)

  1. It was a good reminder of the intentness of El Greco in these works. The last of the four, is to me, the most unique as El Greco used such dark tones.

    Liked by 2 people

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