Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Purification of the Temple

Jacopo Bassano, Purification of the Temple
Italian, 1585
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
"Since the Passover of the Jews was near,
Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves,
as well as the money changers seated there.
He made a whip out of cords
and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen,
and spilled the coins of the money changers
and overturned their tables,
and to those who sold doves he said,
"Take these out of here,
and stop making my Father's house a marketplace."
His disciples recalled the words of Scripture,
Zeal for your house will consume me.

(John 2:13-17)

Excerpt from the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B

The episode in which Jesus comes to the temple in Jerusalem and drives out the traders who had established their businesses within its walls is one of the most dramatic of the events of His life, prior to the Passion. The writers of the Synoptic Gospels place it in the early days of what we now call Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ life and may have been the last straw that gave the Jewish temple faction their excuse for stage managing His crucifixion. On the other hand, John, the writer of the Gospel used on the Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year B of the reading cycle, places it earlier in Jesus ministry. Its actual chronology in His life is, however, less important than its meaning.

Valentin de Boulogne, Purification of the Temple
French, ca. 1620-1625
St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum
In Jesus’ time the second temple, built only in recent decades by Herod the Great, had certain requirements. First, there was a temple tax, which needed to be paid. It could not be paid by using Greek or Roman coins, which were marked by images of the gods or of deified emperors. Therefore, there were merchants who provided the services that we today call foreign exchange, buying the unacceptable coins in exchange for allowable coins (at a profit, of course).

In addition, to supply pilgrims with the animals needed for the temple sacrifices, there were traders who provided the animals, among them oxen, sheep and doves. While all these businesses served legitimate purposes related to the temple worship, they had encroached on areas of the temple that were off limits for such activities, therefore, defiling the sanctity of those areas. And this is not even to mention the potential for corruption that the association of commerce and the temple rituals could cause: bribes, kickbacks, price gouging, etc. Jesus reacted to this by an outburst of spontaneous, prophetic action.

Rembrandt, Jesus Overturning the Tables
of the Money Changers
Dutch, 1626
Moscow, Pushkin Museum

The image of the outraged Jesus, assembling a makeshift whip out of cords, and then driving these merchants out of the temple is one that still astonishes. Indeed, it may be more astonishing today than at times in the past.

The image of Jesus that today exists in many minds is more that of a gentle guru than an outraged and zealous prophet. A couple of centuries of “gentle Jesus meek and mild”, accepting and affirming everyone and everything, have blinded us to the possibility that some things might actually matter to Him.  It is a huge stretch of the imagination to picture a Jesus who would create a whip out of cords and use it to drive people out of the building or who would overturn the foreign exchange tables, spilling the piles of coins to the floor.

Purification of the Temple
From Gospel Book of Matilda
Italian, late 11th century (ca.1090)
New York, Morgan Library
MS M 492, fol. 84r (detail)

This wasn’t the way earlier centuries saw this episode.

As far as I have been able to determine, the earliest images of the Purification occur during the Middle Ages in manuscript illumination and wall painting.

Early images seem to be more like symbolic representations of the event than imaginative records of it. 

Purification of the Temple
Wall painting
German (Rhineland)
St. Clement's Church

Purification of the Temple
Detail - the Moneychangers
St. Clement's Church

Purification of the Temple
Detail - Dove Sellers
St. Clement's Church

Hand B of the Munich Psalter, Purification of the Temple
English (Oxford), First quarter of the 13th century
London, British Library
MS Arundel 157, fol. 6v(detail)

Master of the Harvard Hannibal, Purification of the Temple
From Meditationes vitae Christi
French (Paris), 1420-1422
London, British Library
MS Royal 20 B IV, fol. 92 (detail)

Giotto, Purification of the Temple
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Arena Chapel
The beginnings of a more realistic view of the event.  In Giotto's painting the defensive reaction of one of the traders
implies an actual action, not a symbolic one. 

Scenes from Holy Week
From Angevin-Hungarian Golden Legend
Hungary or Italy, 1320-1345
New York, Morgan Library

Master of the Hours of Margaret of Cleves, Purification of the Temple with Old Testament prototypes
 (Darius Purifying the Temple, Jesus Purifying the Temple, and Judas Maccabeus Purifying the Temple)
From Biblia pauperum
Netherlands, ca. 1405
London, British Library
MS King's 5, fol. 7

During the Renaissance and later periods, as artists became more comfortable with using such tools as scientific perspective, this changed and the representations of the Purification or Cleansing of the Temple began to show more violence.

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Purification of the Temple
Italian, 1403-1424
Florence, Baptistery

Rambures Master, Purification of the Temple
From Biblia pauperum
Hesdin or Amiens, ca. 1470
The Hague, Museum Meermanno-Westentrianum
MS MMW 10 A 15, fol. 27r (detail)

In these two images (from Ghiberti's doors to the Baptistery of Florence cathedral and from the 1470 Biblia pauperum) there is no doubt that the action of Jesus is a real action, as the other figures react to it. 

The level of violence and the number of figures and animals involved increased over time, until by the Baroque period, Jesus sometimes became lost in the crowd.
Pieter Aertsen, Purification of the Temple
Dutch, 1570-1575
Sold at Christie's Amsterdam on November 9, 1998

Jacopo Bassano, Purification of the Temple
Italian, 1580
London, National Gallery
El Greco, Purification of the Temple
Greco-Spanish, 1570
Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art
El Greco, Purification of the Temple
Greco-Spanish, 1610
London, National Gallery
Valentin de Boulonge, Purification of the Temple
French,  ca. 1618
Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica
Jacob Jordaens, Purification of the Temple
Flemish, 1640-1645
Paris, Musee du Louvre
Giovanni Battista Castiglione, Purification of the Temple
Italian, 1645-1655
Paris, Musee du Louvre
Here Jesus is a tiny figure in the background, almost swallowed  up by the crowds of animals and people scattering before Him.
Luca Giordano, Purification of the Temple
Italian, ca. 1675
St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum
Jean Restout and Jean Jouvenet, Purification of the Temple
French, 1754-1757
Paris, Mobilier nationale

Cosmas Damian Asam, Purification of the Temple
German, 1731-1732
Osterhofen (Bavaria), Church of St. Margaret
During the 18th century, and into the 19th century and beyond, artists began to expand the temple setting to concentrate more on the surroundings of the Purification.  Consequently, it is as if the viewpoint of the artist has moved from the mid- to close range into a long distance view.

Giovanni Pannini, Purification of the Temple
Italian, ca. 1724
Madrid, Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection

Bernardo Bellotto, Purification of the Temple
Italian, 1773
Warsaw, National Museum

Joseph Mallard William Turner
Purification of the Temple
English, ca. 1832
London, Tate Gallery
At the same time the image of Jesus became more and more that of the gentle, meek, quiet victim. And, in keeping with this, the images of the Purification of the Temple become quieter, assuming, once again, a more symbolic character. This time, however, the world presented to our view is not the barely indicated one of the medieval image, but the carefully constructed, even archaeological, setting of 19th century historicism.

Raymond Balze, Purification of the Temple
French, 1850s
Montauban, Musee Ingres
James Tissot, Purification of the Temple
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum
William Brassey Hole, Purification of the Temple
English, 1906

© M. Duffy, 2012

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