Born in Crete, then a Venetian possession, and trained in the Byzantine tradition of his native land, the natural destination for Domenikos Theotokopoulos when he decided to leave was Venice. Once there, it seems that this Cretan painter of icons may well have studied under the great Titian — quite a clash of cultures. The result was an intensely individualistic style which makes his paintings instantly recognisable — a sort of supercharged Mannerism overlaid with a personal spiritual passion.
In 1570 he left Venice for Rome where he seems to have courted controversy by joining in the debate about Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in a particularly ham-fisted way. Some years later he reportedly said that Michelangelo ‘was a good man but he did not know how to paint’. Opinions such as these were perhaps not best suited to win him many popularity contests in the Eternal City and it is possible that a certain antipathy towards him may have contributed to his decision to move on again, this time to Spain.
His first stop was Madrid, which he quickly left in favour of Toledo, the recently vacated capital, where he lived for the rest of his life. He was commissioned to produce two works for Philip II but he was left in no doubt that the second picture had not pleased the king. He nevertheless made a good living painting for religious and other patrons in Toledo where he apparently lived in some style, a proud and passionate presence, never afraid to seek legal redress should it become necessary. But it is not difficult to see how Philip, used to a more ordered and serene art, should have found El Greco’s style to be so difficult to appreciate.
Here, Christ, dominating the centre of the composition, ploughs through the throng, lashing out, as we are told in St John’s Gospel with his ‘scourge of cords’, throwing out of the temple ‘the sheep and the oxen; and he poured out the changers money, and overthrew their tables’. To Christ’s right, where he directs his fury, the traders recoil in terror, those near to him set in angular poses, preparing to protect themselves against the impact of his knotted whip. This clamourous confrontation is heightened by El Greco’s use of colour. Christ’s etiolated body is clothed in a striking crimson which immediately claims our attention. But his blue cloak chimes with other patches of blue encouraging our eye to wander over the painting restlessly, picking up areas of gold, yellow and green (set against the predominantly grey architecture) which seem to compound the compositional and narrative tension.
Above the crowded interior, on either side of the entrance to the temple, El Greco has depicted two Old Testament incidents as if in stone relief. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden on the left has been linked by theologians to this New Testament expulsion. To the right, Abraham can be seen at the very moment when he is about to sacrifice his son Isaac, a split second before Isaac is reprieved by divine intervention. Here too, a theological link is made between the intended sacrifice of Isaac, Christ’s passion, and the mass of humanity, represented by the crowds in the temple, who will be saved by the sacrifice of the Messiah.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1595 Caravaggio: The Lute Player, St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
1602 Annibale Carracci: ‘Domine, Quo Vadis’, London, National Gallery