The Finding of Leonardo’s Influence in the Temple (Painting)

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According to Jason Rosenfeld, as students, the Pre-Raphaelites consciously chose to avoid the influence of Leonardo and other old masters. Notwithstanding this, I would argue that in the case of The Finding, Holman Hunt found some inspiration in Leonardo’s Last Supper (1495). Additionally, the painting Christ Among the Doctors by Bernardino Luini (c. 1550) in the National Gallery may well have been a consideration for Holman Hunt given that it was wrongly attributed to Leonardo whilst he was at the Royal Academy. 

Holman Hunt had indicated in a letter to John Ruskin that he regarded his Finding picture as being as important to him as The Last Supper was to Leonardo da Vinci. In the letter which responded to Ruskin’s criticism, Holman Hunt makes reference to Leonardo taking seven years to complete The Last Supper as part justification for taking so long on his Finding painting. Furthermore, notwithstanding any earlier commitment to avoid any influence, it is fair to assume that Holman Hunt admired da Vinci’s work given that he is favourably placeon the renowned Pre-Raphaelite List of Immortals. This snippet of information might indicate something of Holman Hunt’s inner professional and religious ambitions; to create a memorable and potentially canonical work of art within a new, contemporary religious tradition. However, in formal terms it is possible to detect more than a nod in da Vinci’s direction. In terms of The Last SupperThe Finding’s deployment of a cast of symbolic characters surrounding the figure of Jesus would seem the most evident characteristic. Furthermore, the tentative link with the festival of Passover would connect the pictures within the religious sphere. The last supper as conveyed in the New Testament book of Matthew (26:17-30) is meant to take place at the Passover meal, and The Finding takes place after the seven-day festival has just come to an end. 

However, it is Holman Hunt’s construction of pictorial depth that is most pertinent here. The inclusion within the composition of a graduated set of pillars spaced in accordance with conventions of perspective  corresponds with the graduated pillars within either side of The Last Supper 

Notwithstanding this correlation, the method he uses to do this has an element of ambiguity about it.  The main action of The Finding takes place in the foreground. And yet, logic tells the viewer that there must be a great deal of space in such a large interior structure.  Hunt has made use of a number of devices to suggest illusory depth. Firstly, there is the skilful handling of multiple figures in a compressed space. Holman Hunt’s use of shade and shadow contribute much to the appearance of naturalistic perspective concerning the grouping of the figures.  Additionally, the pillars and the smaller figures at the rear of the Temple suggest an extreme elongated space. The illusion is further emphasised by the long view into the landscape to the right-hand side of the picture.  

I believe that Holman Hunt’s mention of the importance of Leonardo’s Last Supper to Ruskin to be more than a passing example to justify his own current approach. I believe that Holman Hunt gave a great deal of thought to the allusion with Leonardo. 

In The Last Supper, Da Vinci achieved a sense of pictorial space by means of mathematical and symbolic perspective. By mathematical I refer to a measured calculated perspective that corresponds to our sense of the rational and ordered, or the real. By symbolic, I refer to the symbolic as a more spiritual notion of space to convey a notion of the irrational or ideal.  

In The Last Supper, the room within the fresco is depicted as deeper than it is wide. This creates some ambiguity. Is that depicted space meant to be an annex to the depicted refectory setting, or a continuation of the actual refectory in which it was paintedLike the renowned optical illusion that oscillates between duck and rabbit where the viewer can only perceive one at a time, the space depicted in The Last Supper can be perceived as working in both ways.  The duality, the blend of the rational and symbolic are further reflected in Leonardo’s use of theological symbolism whereby nourishment comes from food as well as the spiritual, emphasised by the refectory setting. In the case of Leonardo’s Last Supperthe viewer must actively interpret a blend of biblical and artistic language. 

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I would argue that Holman Hunt also makes use of symbolic and measured perspective techniques.  This creates the sense that Holman Hunt achieves similar effects to The Last Supper with The Finding. This is suggested by the paradox within both pictures in that they seem to have a horizontal frieze-like band of figures combined with a simultaneous conveyance of deep space where viewers must construct that sense of reality for themselves. 

Da Vinci regarded the measured intervals between the pillars as corresponding with musical interludes, that is to say, measuring them in terms of musical values, and the pillars in Holman Hunt’s work further suggest a similar rhythmic measuring of the space. 

Additionally, da Vinci places three window openings at the rear of the space. Holman Hunt places a window opening at the rear of the Temple. 

The symbolic use of colour is relevant also, as not all of Leonardo’s choices are naturalistic. In The Last Supper, Jesus’s clothing is more saturated in colour than that of the disciples. Hunt also makes Jesus’s clothing suitably vibrant to contrast with that of Mary’s. 

The dual approach to perspective and colour can also be extended to the specific depiction of space in The Last Supper. Leonardo’s considerable diligence and deeply thought out methods of working are qualities that we can discern in Holman Hunt’s approach, and this is what he alludes to in his letter to Ruskin. 

Ambiguity in the Last Supper is echoed in The Finding by the ambiguous position of the notional viewer. Where are we supposed to be in the scheme of things? Conceptually, we may be on the outside of The Finding’s world and looking in on the scene in the style of a voyeur or a theatre audience. However, if Jesus’s gaze is directed outwards, at us, then we are potentially included within the world of the painting. The scene is not in that case an enclosed world unto itself. In this way, The Finding forges a link with the devotional art of the Italian Renaissance which also assumed the interaction or involvement of the notional viewer. 

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Renaissance Influences – Drama and Theatre 

An Engagement with Renaissance Influences – Drama and Theatre 

As I have already alluded, The Finding in its frame has the appearance of a theatrical stage set. The scene appears to be a frozen sequence of moments in time, as if caught on camera. The theatrical effect is conveyed through a number of elements. Firstly, the sheer number of figures with which the painting has the viewer contend warrants attention. To the left-hand side are the rabbis, musicians and attendants. The priests and their attendants sit a semicircle that partly encloses the trio on the right-hand side.  Although we understand them to be seated in a semi-circle, the actual effect is somewhat more compressed.  In terms of an ideological and physical contrasting of the two groups, (the rabbis and the holy family) Holman Hunt’s creation of opposition and a confrontational structure contributes to the sense of drama. 

Given the gaze afforded to the notional viewer by the young Jesus it seems pertinent to ask about the role the viewer plays in the organisation of The Finding. It is as if we are seated in a theatre awaiting the drama to proceed, or rather continue. Indeed, it occurs to me that Manet and the Impressionists created paintings that suggest to viewers that the artist has come upon a scene by chance and painted it. Holman Hunt however, wishes his viewers to believe that they, the viewers, have come across this scene which he has realised and created for them. 

Notwithstanding the seated rabbis, there is a suggestion of movement and more to come. On the floor, in the shade, is an abaya strewn and flattened. It is where Jesus has been seated until this moment. The Lukan text describes Jesus as “sitting in the Temple” and here, we can understand that he was. Until this moment. 

The idea of “this moment” makes the scene one of tense, high drama. The action is conveyed by the writing on the inlays which, like a theatrical script, informs (or reminds) the viewer what the story is about. This befits the idea of a theatre set with the audience observing, watching the action. However, the notional audience or viewer, is positioned somewhere within the schema. And here one of a number of ambiguities can be discerned. Are we, the viewers, situated inside or outside the Temple? This is one of a number of strange elements that, notwithstanding the tight organisation and detail, that the picture slowly reveals. 

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?”


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.

The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple as “disputation”

The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, 1860, William Holman Hunt (detail)

My investigation seeks to closely examine and problematise one of the most puzzling aspects of the work, that is, what I will refer to as its Jewish presence. The Finding is construed as a Christian painting and yet depicts almost entirely Jews and Judaism.

Therefore, one of my concerns is why this Jewish presence has been overlooked. My thesis will consider what this appearance of Jewishness means in terms of how the European West understands itself historically and philosophically. In other words, in addition to why, we will consider how the Jewish presence in The Finding has been overlooked.

The Finding purports to depict the scene from the New Testament book of Luke (Luke 2:41-52) which describes an encounter between the twelve-year-old Jesus and the Temple elders. The picture shows Jesus and the Jewish rabbis as separate from, and in conflict with each another.

The short account in Luke is the only canonical story of Jesus’s childhood in the New Testament. The episode describes the losing of Jesus on the part of Mary and Joseph on the return home after the Passover festival. Mary and Joseph return to find Jesus in the Temple in discussion with the elders. The Finding is an example of  portrayals of this biblical scene which has become known as the “disputation,” As such, it follows in a tradition of other, mostly older paintings depicting this scene.

The scene is also known as Christ Among the Doctors, Christ in the Temple with the Doctors, The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple and variants around this theme. Examples include works by Heinrich Hofmann, 1884, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1654, Bernardino Luini, circa 1530, Albrecht Dürer, 1506, and others.

This thesis will therefore bring to the fore a genre of “disputation paintings” which although clearly Western European in origin, is not organised by reference to a particular artistic style or nation. 

The binary division of Jewish and Christian implied in The Finding and its sense of confrontation is not easily explained by its purported New Testament origin. A close reading of the Lukan scene will show that it is not actually one of confrontation. The elders (represented and often described in The Finding as “rabbis”) are described as amazed or astonished at the twelve-year-old’s wisdom and knowledge.

I quote here:

(46) After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. (47) And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2: 46-47) (My emphasis)

The Lukan text does suggest that a discussion is taking place because it says that Jesus is “listening to them and answering questions.” However, if we accept that the scene is known as the “disputation” we must acknowledge that this discussion has come to mean, for modern readers of the New Testament, a much later conception of disputation. It is debateable as to whether or not this new understanding has been influenced by disputation paintings specifically. Nevertheless, whatever is understood about the discussion by modern readers, given that the story is situated as a biblical event it can only be an inner-Jewish debate, not a Jewish versus Christian one. This later interpretation and naming of the scene as a disputation can only be explained in my view, by the identification of a wider discourse of disputation. This discourse can be seen to be inextricably linked with matters concerned with historical Jewish-Christian relations and obliquely refers to actual public events such as the renowned disputations of Paris (1240) or Barcelona (1263).

I will re-contextualise The Finding away from its customary situatedness within the Pre-Raphaelite fold to posit it as a Disputation painting. This allows me to demonstrate that The Finding is not merely as illustrative of the Lukan story but functions as an engagement within a wider 19th century Jewish-Christian debate. Therefore, when we talk about disputation more generally, it is not merely an artistic, literary, or even biblical type scene but a discourse, and a discourse within which The Finding effectively participates.

(What) Is the Power of (or in) the Image?

The idea that a picture may have the agency with which to point to something is alluded to by W.J.T. Mitchell in his book What do Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Images.[1] The book explores the notion of pictures (in a variety of forms) possessing power as if “wanting things”. Clearly Mitchell does not refer to pictures as literally possessing some “magical” power, rather he offers a consideration of how viewers respond to images. According to Mitchell, people behave as though pictures were alive and had the power to influence human lives, demanding things, persuading and seducing or leading us astray. The power of pictures lies in the responses we make to human created visual representations.

Emmanuel Levinas in Reality and its Shadow (1948) also recognised the power of images, and at times, was deeply critical of “art”. Taking quite a different approach to Hans Geog Gadamer, Art, he says, in its portraying of “things” suggests a presence that is really an absence. “It is as if the represented object died”. For Levinas, images inhabit a world of shadows. Art deceives.

Of course, the use of the word “shadows” harks back to Plato’s cave, and thus reminds us that philosophy has long regarded art (whatever we mean by “art”) with curiosity and suspicion. This suspicion is centred around notions of “truth” and whether art can lead us toward, or away from what is true. Levinas worries about the fixity of the image. The propensity for the pictured frozen moment, the implicit timelessness of figures forever portraying  a scene in perpetuity.

The Finding represents Holman Hunt’s frozen imagined moment of the young Jesus’s self revelation of his mission. It holds a moment of vision and blindness in the form of a dispute. It re-works a New Testament story, drawing upon and underpinning an artistic journey through centuries of religious and painterly practice.

Interestingly, Holman Hunt tries to inject movement in that frozen moment. Jesus has sprung up from his abaya on the ground and contorts his body to both push away his mother and gird his loins for action. In perpetuity.



[1] W.J.T. Mitchell, What do Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Images. London: University of Chicago Press, 2005.


A Work of Art is a “Thing”

Despite the contemporary world’s saturation with imagery, we should recognise a work of art as a thing, an object and not merely an image.

It is important to remember that The Finding made by a person, developed, planned with Holman Hunt’s unique human experience and concerns. Bringing this into our consciousness allows us to slow down the looking and evaluating process and consider what these details mean for us, to me, in the present. Although due consideration has been given already to the meaningfulness of The Finding in its own time, this does not nullify the option to consider what it says to us today.

As an object, The Finding is itself unique, notwithstanding Holman Hunt’s production of two copies, the many official and unofficial reproductions made and the ease of further reproducing such copies. It has material qualities, for example, Holman Hunt’s own patterns of paint application, the carefully designed inlet with its text, the specially carved frame. Taking each step, mark or brushstroke in the making of The Finding into consideration, it would surely be impossible to replicate. Even Holman Hunt’s second painted version possesses many differences from the original.


The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, William Holman Hunt, 1860. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, William Holman Hunt, 1860. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. (Detail)

The particular qualities of The Finding as an object are of great interest and relevance. The aforementioned frame is a significant aspect of the work, and it is fair to acknowledge that there have been a number of interesting treatments of these details. One example worth noting here is Lynn Roberts’s paper on Nineteenth Century English Picture Frames which offers a very useful discussion of Holman Hunt’s picture frames and on The Finding’s frame in particular. Clearly Holman Hunt intended the frame to form a significant aspect of the work. The work effectively spills outward into the frame, exacerbating the sense of The Finding as a three-dimensional object – as something the viewer can experience in person but not so easily in reproduction.

What’s “Method” got to do with Anything?

Quite a lot as it happens. But what is meant by “method”?  Isn’t it like being a detective? Close observation, organising the clues, and finding “the” answer? The problem of method lies in what it assumes. That is to say, there is a tendency within the academy to regard the adoption of a method as a goal-oriented process, a means to achieving “appropriate outcomes” rather than a journey of open discovery.



Although the practice of research can, at times, feel approximate to detective work, the playful motif of researcher-as-detective does art a disservice when seeking to work towards an answer to the question of interpretation by means of observation, deduction, the solving of puzzles, the decoding of clues and the raking back towards a “whodunnit”.

The questions I have about The Finding and the material it prompts me to consider, cannot be deduced from the range of evidence habitually cited. That is to say, Holman Hunt’s story, Pre-Raphaelite mythology or even F.G. Stephens’s exhibition pamphlet. I can’t therefore haul the ususal suspects into view for deployment in my quest.

Anyway, I know whodunnit. My question is really a “howdunnit”, not how did Holman Hunt put the drawing and painting together. But what kind of knowledge, inherited knowledge, or understanding was needed in order to produce the work? What kind of world, or Weltanschauung (world view) produced this work? That is the question.

Hans Georg Gadamer does not advocate a way to truth via “method” even though the title “Truth and Method” might suggest it. What is your necessary pre-judice? Your “fore understanding” or mental baggage? And do you need these things in order to understand anything you encounter?