Why is this Project Different from Other Projects? (The Two (not four) Questions)

At the Seder, the ceremonial meal that commemorates the Passover, the youngest child present asks four questions which begin with: “Why is this night different from other nights?”

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The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple is, in its own way, a commemoration of Passover. It portrays a scene where the festival of Passover is finished (Luke, 2:41-52). On their way home from Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph have “lost” Jesus, and return to “find” him in the Temple. Tradition has it that the four questions are asked by four different types of child, the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son and the one who doesn’t know how to ask at all. What kind of “son” then is Jesus? We are perhaps meant to ask: “Why is this boy different from other boys?” or, more precisely, “Why is this “son” different from other “sons?”

We might also ask: Why is this (ostensibly) Christian painting different from other Christian paintings? And the answer is something like…..Because it is replete with Jewish people and objects in addition to the specific, unavoidable and undeniable religion of Judaism.

In order to investigate the Jewish presence in the painting I will frame my thesis around two questions:

Why does The Finding look the way it does? And how did Holman Hunt know how to paint The Finding?

These deceptively simple questions enable me to open up a wider discussion concerning firstly, the painting’s appearance and secondly a longer historical and philosophical context. Additionally, they will provide a suitable methodological framework for separating out conceptions of the work as the product of an author (artist) figure who is situated within a particular time and place; and understanding the artwork as an engagement with an embedded cultural discourse.

Under the rubric of the first question, the Victorian, English, Protestant and Pre-Raphaelite context will be considered. In attending to the appearance of The Finding, I will explore its appearance, what it looks like, its qualities and physical properties. I will critically evaluate primary sources such as Holman Hunt’s own memoirs, Frederic G. Stephens’s pamphlet, contemporary press accounts and relevant scholarship.

The second question asks, how did Holman Hunt know how to paint the picture? This question is not concerned with Holman Hunt’s ability as an artist or his technical skills so much as the cultural and religious knowledge he would necessarily have had in order to construct any level of coherence in The Finding.

I will argue that the problem of why the Jewish presence is neglected is in part due to the way evidence is gathered to support a reading of a work of art. In this thesis then, the emphasis will move towards an understanding of The Finding as the disclosing of a discourse. Therefore, the thesis will attempt to treat The Finding itself as a source of knowledge and evidence. In other words, The Finding will be treated as an historical source in its own right. This will make for, at times, a tightly honed enquiry, in the consideration of one painting; and a broad-brush approach when it steps back to consider a wider range of historical thought and exemplar material.

The kind of truth understood here is not the opening up of the Pre-Raphaelite Victorian world to us, but the disclosure of an embedded discourse of disputation that cannot be discerned by locating it as merely the logical outcome to being in that Pre-Raphaelite, Victorian world.

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