Once again, I am in the debt of my darling Charlotte for convincing me, in spectacular fashion, to let go of my reticence vis a vis Pre-Raphaelite art. This painting depicts an important moment in the Gospel of Luke. It is also the fifth of the Joyous Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. In the passage, quoted below, Mary and Joseph are on their return from Jerusalem, after celebrating Passover, when they notice Jesus is missing. They turn back to Jerusalem and find Him in the Temple, in discussion with teachers and doctors. This is an important passage in the Gospels as it sheds light on Jesus’ youth, and indeed is the only passage which mentions this hidden period of the saviour’s life.
As Charlotte wrote in her splendid post on Isabella and the Pot of Basil, by the very same artist:
The painter responsible for this bizarre delight is William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. As their name suggests, the group of artists and their followers sought a return to the style of art that had flourished before Raphael. They favoured exquisite detail and vibrant colour over what they perceived to be the dull conventions of the day, and they often took inspiration from the Bible and works of literature for their striking pictures.
The passage from the Gospel of Luke is below:
The Boy Jesus in the Temple.
41 Every year his parents used to go to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. 42 And when Jesus was twelve years old, they made the journey as usual for the feast. 43 When the days of the feast were over and they set off for home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents were not aware of this. 44 Assuming that he was somewhere in the group of travelers, they journeyed for a day. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends, 45 but when they failed to find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, where he was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his intelligence and his answers. 48 When they saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him: “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety.” 49 Jesus said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not comprehend what he said to them. 51 Jesus Grows in Wisdom and Grace. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and he was obedient to them. His mother pondered all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in age and in grace with God and men.
This painting is turbulently mind blowing. There is such a wealth of sumptuous beauty that I do not know where to direct my gaze. Jesus is the centre piece of my life and this painting, so I suppose I should begin there. Dressed in regal blue, and with faint glow behind his head, he is the subject of the audience’s rapt attention. His face is spotless and free from anguish, in sharp contrast to Mary, his mother, who must have been worried sick. Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, is not best pleased. I imagine this painting was depicting the moment after Jesus said to his father “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s work?”. Note the capitalisation of the F. Jesus is reminding St Joseph that he is is not Jesus’ Father in heaven. Joseph’s consternation at this reprimand is visible in the painting.
Moving on, then, to the background of the temple. The gold and colourful jewels, and the lattice patterns are rendered with such delicate care that one is left breathless. Holman Hunt was focussed on creating ethnographically accurate pieces of art. The doctors and rabbis are modelled after local people in the Middle East, where Holman Hunt travelled. As well as studying the local people, he studied ancient Judaic customs and rituals. Their expressions in the painting, varying between consternation and fascination, capture the panoply of reaction they must have had to the child Jesus. The colours, the details and the thoughtfulness which has gone into this piece is overwhelming.
I believe Holman Hunt will have been familiar with, and taken inspiration from, Bernardino Luini’s Christ Among the Doctors, pictured below. The below captures with similar masterfulness, the varied reaction to the child Jesus’ questioning and conversation with men supposedly older and wiser than He.
[The] Religious art of Hunt is a unique piece of creation, and represent[s] a great opportunity to understand the idea of morality in the Pre-Raphaelite era and the ambition of the whole movement in delivering of their message. The Bunget
Like my beautiful Charlotte, I could talk endlessly about this painting. Indeed I hope to have it framed somewhere in my home so I can admire it endlessly. But alas, I will stop here. More Pre-Raphaelite art to come!