Investigating 'Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple' in the collection of Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

Cleansing the surface of 'Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple' (1570) by Unknown artistSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst

A cross examination

In 2012, an international and interdisciplinary research project was carried out to examine four paintings which all depict the same motif – that of Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple – but are located in four different collections. One is in the Kadriorg Art Museum in Tallinn, another is in Glasgow Museums, a third is in a private collection in London, and finally, the fourth is at the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen. All four paintings have echoes of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The research project addressed an under-investigated part of 16th- and 17th-century Netherlandish art production that reuses popular imagery from the time of Hieronymus Bosch. It ventured to discover the origin of the four versions, how and why they were made, and their meanings. Here, we will explore the Copenhagen painting which was formerly attributed to Bruegel, but is now believed to be a variation on a lost painting by Bosch. We will also show the other versions of the motif from Tallinn, Glasgow, and the  private collection in London. 

Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple. (After 1569) by Unknown artistSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst

Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple
Unknown follower of Hieronymus Bosch, after 1569
Oil on panel, 101.7 x 155.3 cm
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

The temple, with its arched roof structures and its open façade, looks cavernous. It is a gloomy grotto amidst the city. The cavern refers to the earth, nature, sexuality and primitivism.

The grotto-like temple is a dark, suspicious place. It demonises an age-old feminine element. Since prehistoric times, cavity, curvature and enclosure have been symbols of the arcane feminine.

Two golden figures of Old Testament prophets – maybe Moses and Aron. One holds the the Ten Commandments. The representation is clearly fantastical, as the Jewish faith does not allow icons.

The crescent moon is a reference to paganism, wickedness, and sinfulness. Associated with Judaism and Islamism, it was also, in Bruegel's time, an emblem of fools, jesters and all who were seedy or raffish.

The Moon presided over lability and inconstancy, over earthly love and its slaves. Its representation on the temple characterises the edifice as anything but holy.

This odd column of idol is placed on top of figures baring their bottoms. This gesture was a prominent comical motif in late mediaeval inversion festivals such as Shrovetide and festival of fools.

Some mediaeval cities had representations of bare-bottomed figures at the city walls, to ward of evil. The column might be an apotropaic image, intended to provide protection to the temple.

In addition to the traders, there are numerous beggars asking for alms in front of the temple.

The elderly lady with a bandaged arm is dressed in rather a fine way. The reason she begs for alms is not because she is in need but because she is too lazy to work.

The child she has taken with her is meant to arouse compassion in people, from which she hopes to make a profit.

Pigs are considered unclean in Jewish culture, a fact that was often cynically exploited in anti-Semitic propaganda. In late Mediaeval Germany, the so-called Judensau was a popular motif.

A man is carrying a hide on a stick, heading towards the temple presumably to sell it. He is part of the group of traders trying to sell merchandise inside or around the Temple.

A half-naked child follows the man by hanging on to the hide. The child seems forlorn, as if dragged along in a maelstrom of adult impulses while holding on desperately to the hide.

A common woman sits with a child in her lap. She has bared the child’s bottom and raises her left hand. At first glance, we might think that she wants to dry the child’s bottom by the warm fire.

But notice the egg lying on the ground. Is the child being spanked for dropping it on the ground? If this is the case, the scene evokes a sense of attachment to possession, even if only an egg.

A condemned man is suspended in a basket over water. To free himself, he needs to cut the rope with which the basket has been suspended, but this inevitably means that he will fall into the water.

This punishment was a form of public shaming. The message of law and order that is conveyed here is quite clear: evil-doers will not escape worldly punishment.

A quack - a doctor who has not trained in medicine - carries out an operation in front of the audience. He has ‘cured’ a patient by pulling out the tooth that ached, but is leaving her bleeding.

A board with forged certificates and a defecating figure lays bare the intentions of the quack.
It is a word-play: in 16th-century Dutch the verb “beschijten“ had two meanings – to cheat and to shit.

The audience is made up of people representing different strata of society. One sees here peasants, noble figures but also a gypsy and an itinerant merchant.

A man is trying to steal the purse of an onlooker; a peasant carrying flat headgear and a bag with a goose. However, the theft has been noticed and the villain is being targeted!

When first viewing the four paintings of the Traders, it is easy to overlook the background, where a small-scale scene from the Passion of Christ is played out, almost illegible.

At the centre, we see the main theme: the scourging of those who have desecrated the Temple. However, as Christ says in the Bible: “Zeal for your house has consumed me”.

Jesus’ holy zeal is indeed punished, as seen in the top right: the carrying of the Cross. The painting suggests that society will inevitably take revenge on anyone striving for perfection.

Erasmus of Rotterdam (1526) by Albrecht DürerSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst

What does the painting mean ?

The iconography of the painting 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 also took 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 Scriptural passage “do not make my Father’s house a house of trade“ (John 2:13-17). These words of wisdom can be interpreted in two ways: as a plea for austerity or, if seen in contemporary historical context, as a criticism against the sale of indulgences.

Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple. (After 1569) by Unknown artistSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst

Motif from the Gospels

After the account of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, the New Testament continues with the episode in the temple. The gospel of Matthew recounts: “And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’, but you make it a den of robbers”.” (Math 21:12-13). The synoptic gospels are more or less in agreement (Mark 11:15-17 and Luke 19:45-46). In the gospel of John, the story is told in more detail: “The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me”.” (John 2: 13-17).


Beggars are ubiquitous in the art of Bosch and his followers, and are invariably portrayed in a negative light. The crescent moon, crowning the temple, was also the beggars’ sign worn on their clothes as small amulets. The contempt extended beyond the begging class too : many other groups on the fringes of society or the lowest rungs of the social ladder were thought to be guilty of eroding the pillars of (middle-class) society: idling, living at the expense of others, and squandering one’s possessions were shown as a danger to social order. Such folk were generally portrayed as poor from their own fault, lecherous, dim, foolish and antisocial. 

Avarice is everywhere

In the painting, avarice is associated not only with money-exchangers and merchants, but also with ordinary folk, craftsmen, peasants, shepherds and beggars. Most are trying to make money by selling goods or services inside the temple, while others are soliciting alms. Mankind and the lower classes in particular are portrayed as if they prefer impurity. This finds expression in, among other things, the urge for earthly possessions: through trade, money changing, usury, theft, deception and begging. This urge is so overriding that it even defiles the sacred space maintained by their own society. The message of the painting can be summed up as follows: in a world where material values and mundane pleasures dominate, people live in deception and are doomed; in this context the salvation offered by faith in Christ’s redemptive death will remain out of reach.

Christ driving the Traders from the Temple (1560) by Unknown artistSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst

Four versions of the same motif 

Avarice or greed is the central motif in Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple: the essence of the Bible passage is that Jesus drives the traders from the house of worship because their appetite for money has turned it into a place of commerce. The composition on which the four versions of the Traders painting are based seems quite close to Bosch – so close that it might originate from Bosch’s workshop, not too long after his death. In the following panels, you can explore the three other versions from Tallinn, Glasgow, and a private collection. 

Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple
Unknown (follower of Bosch), 1560's
Oil on panel, 91 x 150 cm
Art Museum of Estonia – Kadriorg Art Museum, Tallinn.

Christ driving the Traders from the Temple by Attributed to Jan MandjinSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst

Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple
Attributed to Jan Mandijn (ca. 1500-1560)
Oil on panel, 115.7 x 173.1 cm
Private Collection

Christ driving the Traders from the Temple (1600) by Unknown (follower of Bosch) and Unknown (follower of Bosch)SMK - Statens Museum for Kunst

The youngest of the four versions:
Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple
Unknown (follower of Bosch), ca. 1600
Oil on panel, 77 x 60 cm
Glasgow City Council - Glasgow Museums

Christ driving the Traders from the Temple (1560) by Unknown artistSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst

On the trails of origins and motif

Extensive scientific research was carried out in order to determine the origin of the motif depicted on the four paintings. Dendrochronological investigation and infrared imagining of the underdrawing in all four paintings clearly determined that the earliest version would be the one in private ownership. This work is now commonly attributed to Bosch-follower Jan Mandijn (ca. 1500-1560). After this, deriving from another source, follows the making of the Tallinn and Copenhagen Bruegelian versions in the 1560's. Finally the modified and 'signed' version in Glasgow was produced, probably to satisfy an art market which, around 1600,  showed a strong demand for 'old master paintings'.

Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple. (After 1569) by Unknown artistSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst

What is special about the Copenhagen version? 

Of the four paintings, only those in Tallinn and Copenhagen might show us what the original composition must have looked like. The version of Copenhagen seems to be more faithful to the original invention in terms of general appearance and the way the figures are placed in their surroundings. Especially Christ and the traders are a little smaller and fit better inside the temple, and the temple itself shows more variation in the positioning of the various parts. 

Christ driving the Traders from the Temple (1560) by Unknown artistSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst

More details in the Tallinn version

The Tallinn version is far more faithful than the one in Copenhagen in terms of the reproduction of details. The Copenhagen version is rather sketchy in many places, such as in the carrying of the cross, the objects on the quack's table, or the signs on the clock. Furthermore, the carrying of the cross is hard to recognize, and the scene of Christ entering the city is completely absent. Yet both scenes fit very well in the whole staging; as the logical opening and ending of the Holy Week. On top of that, many missing details known from the paintings in Tallinn and London are at least partially present in the Copenhagen underdrawing. Possibly the artist(s) behind the workshop version now in Copenhagen became a bit sloppy, and did not take the trouble to draw all details extensively and even less to paint them afterwards. Or, for an unknown reason, the background and parts of the buildings were not completely finished.  

Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple. (After 1569) by Unknown artistSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst

Attributions to Bruegel and Bosch 

The Copenhagen painting was formerly attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder. In 1932, Max Friedländer suggested that it was an original painting by Pieter Bruegel from around 1556: “The overall impression, murky and heavy, provides no clear evidence for the great master. The individual figures that emerge from the brown fog, concise, expressive with bold and varied movements, betray Bruegel’s Gestaltungsart, and don’t leave any doubt with respect to originality and time.” In addition he noted that the clock with arm, ‘in the spirit of Bosch’, also appears on Bruegel's print of Desidia (Idleness or Sloth) from 1557.  A similar clock, with a full skeleton attached to the arm, is also prominently present on Bruegel's painting Triumph of Death in the Prado Museum. He considered the version of the Traders now in a private collection in London to be a copy.  Three years later Friedländer had changed his opinion, writing that the painting was an important and rich composition by Bosch in ‘a rather later execution’. Since then the attribution to Bruegel has had only few supporters, but the idea that the work shows influence by Bruegel remained quite strong.  


Relatively few details are known about the provenance of the Copenhagen painting. The painting was acquired by the New Carlsberg Foundation for Statens Museum for Kunst in 1931. According to the provenance data in the museum database, it was bought at Galerie Matthiesen in Berlin for 54,000 Danish kroner. Prior to the sale, the painting was exhibited in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1930. A label on the reverse of the painting, printed with Galerie Matthiesen’s details, reveals that at the time of the 1931 sale the painting was attributed to Hieronymus Bosch. However, Max Friedländer reattributed the newly acquired painting to Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the annual publication of Statens Museum for Kunst, "Kunstmuseets Aarsskrift" in 1932. Other scholars like Glück and Van Puyvelde upheld the attribution to Bruegel, but Charles Tolnay rejected it, followed by Genaille, Denis and all subsequent scholars. 

An introduction to working with technical art history by Jørgen Wadum, Director of CATS and of Conservation, Statens Museum for KunstSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst

What is technical art history? How did the conservators investigate the four paintings of the Traders? Hear the recount of Jørgen Wadum, Director of CATS and Conservation at Statens Museum for Kunst.

SMK TV: Bosch & Bruegel / Animation / Music by MetallicaSMK - Statens Museum for Kunst

Watch the Copenhagen painting Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple come to life!

Animation: Andrey Zakirzyanov
Music: Metallica

Credits: Story


Jørgen Wadum, Director of CATS and Conservation, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

Bernard Vermet, Associate, Foundation for Cultural Inventory, Amsterdam

Paul Vandenbroeck, Research curator, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp


Merete Sanderhoff, Curator of Digital Museum Practice, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

© 2012 Statens Museum for Kunst - National Gallery of Denmark and CATS, Copenhagen

Read more

Read much more about the research project and its results in the publication On the trail of Bosch and Bruegel. Four Paintings United under Cross Examination, or go directly to the online reader of the publication.

Additional sources can be found on the Bosch-Bruegel project website and the CATS website.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Bruegel: Unseen Masterpieces
Nearly 450 years on, the art of Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder continues to fascinate and inspire.
View theme
Google apps