GRECO, El
(b. 1541, Candia, d. 1614, Toledo)

The Purification of the Temple

c. 1600
Oil on canvas, 106 x 130 cm
National Gallery, London

A late version of the subject treated twice in his Italian years. The scene is restricted to the main group, which follows almost exactly that of the original design of some forty years back, which in its turn used a Michelangelo design. A greater expressive force is attained by this concentration in the one group, and is infinitely enhanced by the vitality of the colour and handling. The disturbing effect of the empty space on the right of his earlier versions, and of the recessional perspective of the tiled pavement and the vista through the arch has been eliminated. The three-dimensional character of the figures and space is not described: the event alone is expressed, and creates its own space. The composition includes, on the right-hand side, a woman carrying a basket on her head and gesturing with her hand. Her identity and significance have not been satisfactorily explained.

The episodal type of subject is unusual for El Greco in Spain - he does not repeat the Christ healing the Blind, the possible sequel to this event. The subject was, of course, of special relevance to the age of the Counter-Reformation. In any event, El Greco has raised it above the merely dogmatic or episodal. The Venetian motif of the reclining female figure of the early versions has been substituted by the male figure bending down, which may be a recollection from Raphael's tapestry cartoon of the Miraculous Draught of Fishes. The reliefs to the left and right of the arch represent the Expulsion from Paradise, an Old Testament parallel of the Expulsion from the Temple, and the Sacrifice of Isaac, less easily connected with the subject. In this late version, El Greco has introduced the overthrown 'tables of the moneylenders and the seats of those who sold doves' (St Matthew XXI, 12).

A number of late versions exist, of which the National Gallery painting is the finest example. The splendid small version in the Frick Collection, New York, is probably the study for the larger painting.




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