The iconography of the painting Christ Driving Money-lenders from the Temple is characteristic of the mentality that dominated in 16th-century Antwerp. It illustrates the moral philosophy of the Renaissance Humanist Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536) who often used satire to advocate the teachings of Christian morals. The Humanist movement took also great interest in regional folklore, resulting in the depiction of proverbs, sayings and word-play in art.
The central iconography of the painting is taken from the New Testament. A direct reference is made to the Scriptual passage: „... and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.“ (John 2, 13–17). These words of wisdom can be interpreted in two ways: as a plea for austerity, but if seen in contemporary historical context, also as a criticism against the sale of indulgences.
The message of the painting can be summed up as follow: in the world were material values and mundane pleasures dominate, people live in deception and are doomed. The salvation offered by the faith in Christ’s redemptive death will remain out of reach for them.
The general imagery of the picture reminds that of Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516), whose art enjoyed a great revival in the mid 16th century.
Behind the dentist hangs a board with forged certificates, the defecating figure on the board lays bare the low intentions of the quack. This is actually a word-play: in 16th century language a verb „beschijten“ had two meanings – „to cheat“ and „to shit“.
House of God
Inside the temple one sees golden figures of two Old Testament prophets, Abraham who is considered the first priest in the Old Testament and Moses with the stone tablets presenting the ten commandments from God. Together with a burning lamp and lighted candle they indicate the holiness of the temple.
A False god
This odd column represents an idol-figure and its meaning is formed together with a bas-relief with a limping devil that is placed above a doorway. Here a message is forwarded that people who have dedicated their lives in worshipping the mammon, serve a false god and their lives are guided by devil.
The devil wears a shoe with an extremely long toe – such shoes (known as poulaines or crackowes) were in fashion in 15th century but by 16th century it had become a characteristic detail of a fool.
The audience is grouped together from people representing different stratum of a society. One sees here peasants, noble figures but also a chipsey and an itinerant merchant. There is also a complicit of the quack among the onlookers, the person who has just taken money from the purse of the man in front of him. Luckily that has been noticed and the thief will be caught!
A quack, a doctor who has not trained in medicine, carries out an operation in front of the audience. He has ‘cured’ a patient of pain by pulling out the tooth that ached but has left her bleeding.
Among the doctor’s tools one sees three pairs of obstacles on the table– these should convince the audience of the erudition of the „doctor“.
Among the traders there are also number of beggars asking for the alms in front of the temple. The elderly lady with a bandaged arm is dressed in rather fine way. The reason she begs for the alms is not because she is in need but because she is too lazy to work. The child she has taken with her should arise compassion in people, of which she hopes to take a profit.
A man is exposed in a pillory and another one hangs in a basket. He has given a knife to rescue himself by cutting the rope. As a result he will splash into water and be ridiculed by the onlookers. Most likely the scene alludes to the ecce homo motif in the iconography of Christ Passion. The Man in a pillory is Christ who was sentenced to death on peoples wish and the figure in the basket is the criminal, chosed to set free.
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