Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

El Greco Shows Us a Different Jesus

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

El Greco Shows Us a Different Jesus

Article excerpt

Art historian Sr. Wendy Beckett is writing NCR's Lenten series. Each week during Lent, she discusses a work of art as it illustrates the life of Jesus.

THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT: "The Purification of the Temple" by El Greco, c. 1600

Not many artists have painted the cleansing of the temple, when Jesus made a rough whip of cords and drove out the cattle-dealers and pigeon-sellers and moneychangers. This is a vigorous Jesus, a man of action, calling forth all his energies to protest against the misuse of his Father's house of prayer.

El Greco found this story fascinating. He painted it again and again, the one time in Jesus' life when he reacted physically to wrongdoing. The holiness of the temple was infinitely dear to him. It was where his people could come closest to God; it was all they had to guide them and show them God's love until his coming among them as a man. Jesus supersedes the temple, as he tells them. His body is to be the temple, and to him will come all the nations of the world, not just the Jews.

In a sense, it is the church that he is purifying, as well as the temple. El Greco sees our Lord as a man of immense force and decision, a man who is in control of his anger. This is not violence, but a willed destruction of what is unworthy. Yet El Greco sees how dependent God always is on our reaction. The men and women on the left are accepting the whip. They may be in great disarray, but they are trying to gather together their belongings and move away. But on the right? Toward the front we have two men whose only reaction is to ponder the meaning of what they see. Is this Peter and another disciple? Are they two of the Jews who may have applauded his action secretly but wanted to know his right to take it: legalists?

Behind them are another group of questioners, doubters, men who see what is happening and maybe are unwilling to take the step they themselves must take if the whole temple is to be purified. …

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