This monumental painting has recently been recognized by Peter Humfrey and Philip Cottrell as an important work by the Venetian Renaissance painter, Bonifacio Veronese. It captures the dramatic moment when Christ, having come to Jerusalem, seeks to rid the Temple of merchants and money changers. In keeping with the account in the Gospel of John (2:13-17), Christ has fashioned a whip from cords, and prepares to strike one of the offenders, who cowers above an overturned table. The presence of doves, oxen and sheep is also faithful to the Biblical source. The narrative unfolds in a carefully ordered, luminous setting that affords views of blue sky and a mountainous horizon. Inspired by the interior of the Church of San Salvador in Venice, the classicizing architecture, with its geometric tiles and imposing pilasters, adds to the gravitas of the scene and enhances the legibility of the figures’ emphatic gestures. Bonifacio has even included the mosaic-covered half-dome of San Salvador’s main apse, but added a menorah with a burnt offering beneath it to signal the temple’s Jewish character within the context of his composition.
Virtually unpublished – save for a sale catalogue in which it was erroneously listed as Palma Vecchio (Finarte, Milan, 4 June 2008, lot 209) – the present painting was likely executed not long after 1540. As Dr. Cottrell has observed, Bonifacio’s tendency in the 1530s to draw on the collection of antiquities amassed by Cardinal Giovanni Grimani may still be detected here, as evidenced by the figure of the crouching merchant, who derives his pose from the Falling Galatian (The Falling Gaul) and his head from the so-called Vitellius of Grimani (both Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Venice). For the most part, however, the figures – particularly the women – are of leaner, longer proportions than may typically be seen in Bonifacio’s works of the mid-1530s, such as the Massacre of the Innocents (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice), while having not yet attained the etherealness of his figures from the mid-1540s, as in the Raising of Lazarus (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice). Rather, Christ driving the money changers from the Temple closely relates in terms of its figural and architectural treatment to the Christ and the Adulteress (Brera, Milan), which Dr. Humfrey dates to circa 1540-1542. Notably, several details, such as the head of Christ and the pair of oxen, appear in later works by Bonifacio datable circa 1545.
Humfrey has also noted that Bonifacio’s composition has much in common with El Greco’s interpretation of the subject (fig. 1; National Gallery of Art, Washington), which is generally ascribed to the Cretan’s Venetian sojourn (circa 1567-70). In particular, Christ’s pose is virtually identical in both pictures, which also feature a similar figure seen from the back and raising his right arm in a protective gesture. The two paintings are also comparable in terms of their open, all’antica settings and their shared detail of the caged doves in the foreground. As Dr. Humfrey suggests, it is thus appealing to imagine that El Greco had occasion to encounter Bonifacio’s grand painting in a Venetian palace during his time there. Why Bonifacio’s still-unidentified patron would have requested this subject – which remained relatively unpopular until the Counter-Reformation – remains uncertain. It should be remarked, however, that the theme had recently been treated on a large scale, albeit with a different sensibility, by Bonifacio’s colleague, Stefano Cernotto, in the Magistrato del Monte Nuovissimo at the Carmerlenghi (circa 1536-38), whose officers could reflect upon it as they managed low-interest loan funds.
We are grateful to Dr. Peter Humfrey for endorsing the attribution to Bonifacio on the basis of a photograph and for generously sharing his research with us for this catalogue note. This painting will be included in his forthcoming Bonifacio de’ Pitati monograph, co-authored with Philip Cottrell.