A Closer Look at a Painting by El Greco

On a recent museum visit, Artsology saw this painting (below) by the 16th Century painter Domenicos Theotocopoulos, who is better known as "El Greco" ("The Greek"). While he was born in Crete, El Greco later lived in Italy, followed by Spain. Scroll down for more ...

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This painting is titled Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, and is dated circa 1570. The composition of the painting is interesting in that most of the action is taking place off-center, with Jesus depicted as storming through the temple and brandishing a whip in order to scare the money changers away. (If you're wondering who the "money changers" were, they were people offering to exchange the standard Greek and Roman money for Jewish and Tyrian money, which was required for temple ceremonies). Let's take a further look at the composition of this painting ...

Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple by El Greco

As we mentioned, most of the action is happening on the left side of the painting, while the right side shows a view down a hallway in perspective, which gives a sense of depth to the picture. However, in the front right foreground are four guys, who seem very calm and apparently not the least bit concerned about all the action on the left. Who are these guys?

It turns out that these four men are famous artists whose lives and work had inspired El Greco, and he wanted to pay a tribute to them by including them in this painting. Of course none of these men were alive when the story of Jesus and the money changers would have taken place, so the inclusion of them here is an interesting twist within a narrative painting about a biblical story. So, you're still asking, "who are these guys?" They are four major figures in the arts during the Renaissance, and they are, from left: Titian, Michelangelo, Giulio Clovio, and Raphael.

However, this brings up two more questions: when were these Renaissance artists living compared to when El Greco was living, and how would he have known what they looked like?

El Greco portraits of Titian, Michelangelo, Giulio Clovio, and Raphael

To answer the first question, here are the dates during which times these artists lived:

  • El Greco: 1541-1614
  • Titian: 1490-1576
  • Michelangelo: 1475-1564
  • Giulio Clovio: 1498-1578
  • Raphael: 1483-1520

So, as you can see, there was some overlap in the time that all of them lived, with the exception of Raphael, who died before El Greco was born. But even so, how would El Greco have known what they looked like? There weren't photographs, newspapers or the internet back then. In the case of Clovio, it is known that he and El Greco were acquaintances, and with Titian, it is known that they were both in Venice at the same time, so they may have encountered each other. When El Greco moved to Rome in 1570, Michelangelo and Raphael were both dead, but their art would have been throughout the city. Both artists had produced self-portraits, so perhaps El Greco had seen those? Let's take a look at some known portraits of the other artists, and see how El Greco's depiction of them compares. It would seem that he has very accurate depictions of his artistic heroes.

portraits of Titian, Michelangelo, Clovio and Raphael

Above we have, from left:

First pair: Titian by El Greco and a Titian Self-Portrait

Second pair: Michelangelo by El Greco and Michelangelo by Marcello Venusti

Third pair: Both paintings of Giulio Clovio by El Greco

Fourth pair: Raphael by El Greco and a Raphael Self-Portrait

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