Purification of the Temple
© The Frick Collection
oil painting of the Purification of the Temple
English (US)
The theme of the Purification of the Temple absorbed the great Spanish master El Greco throughout his career. Here he depicts this passage from the Book of Matthew: "Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all of them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves." During the Counter Reformation, this was a popular subject, symbolizing the cleansing of heresy from the Catholic Church. El Greco fills the picture with his characteristic elongated figures and daring colors--wine-red against acid yellow, oranges and greens juxtaposed. This cold but brilliant palette, along with the rough brushwork and explosive composition, generates remarkable dramatic intensity. Christ strides forward in the center of the painting. To the left are frightened sinners, the violence of their turmoil underscored by the broken table in the foreground. Directly above them, a sculpted relief shows Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise. To the right of Christ, believers quietly discuss the chaotic scene. The Sacrifice of Isaac above them is a reminder of the Crucifixion. When Mr. Frick bought this painting in 1909, there were very few El Grecos in American collections: the artist had only recently been rediscovered after falling into almost total obscurity. But Mr. Frick owned three El Grecos, and this one must have meant a great deal to him, for he hung it in his study on the second floor.

Purification of the Temple

El Greco (1541–1614)
Date: ca. 1600
Medium: Oil on canvas
16 1/2 x 20 5/8 in. (41.9 x 52.4 cm)
Credit Line: Henry Clay Frick Bequest
Accession number:1909.1.66
Additional Information
The subject of Christ driving the traders and moneychangers from the Temple assumed special significance during the Counter Reformation as a symbolic reference to the purification of the Church from heresy. El Greco has introduced, in the bas-reliefs on the Temple wall, the themes of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise and the Sacrifice of Isaac, both Old Testament prefigurations of the Purification of the Temple. The figures in the painting are divided into two groups. At left, beneath the Expulsion relief, are the frightened sinners. At right, the believers quietly observe the scene from beneath the Sacrifice of Isaac, an antetype of the Crucifixion.

The theme of the Purification absorbed El Greco throughout his career, as demonstrated by the many versions of this composition that issued from his shop. Although the chronology of El Greco’s work is far from clear, the Frick canvas appears to be one of the later examples. The painting is smaller in size than other similar versions, but it generates remarkable dramatic intensity through the explosive movement and cold but brilliant coloring.

Source: Art in The Frick Collection: Paintings, Sculpture, Decorative Arts, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.
Infante Don Antonio de Borbón (?). Don Luis Herreros de Tejada (?). Vest-Servet, Madrid. Don Aureliano de Beruete, Madrid, bought in 1899. Frick, 1909.

Source: Paintings in The Frick Collection: French, Italian and Spanish. Volume II. New York: The Frick Collection, 1968.