I am pleased to have had a short piece published in the latest Pre-Raphaelite Society Review. It is a revised version of one of my blog pieces concerning Holman Hunt’s critical reworking of Leonardo’s Last Supper in his Finding painting. Click on the link to find out more about the society which aims to promote the study of the works and lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their successors.
Relating the disputation as portrayed in painting to its textual origins.
This post forms part of a wider enquiry into a selection of paintings that depict the story in Luke 2:41-52, where the twelve-year-old Jesus is found in the Temple in discussion with the doctors. The scene has become known as the “disputation.”
I shall consider the paintings’ relationship to the Lukan text. How faithful are they? How truthful are they? And how could we know?
I’m not entirely sure how you would measure that other than to suggest asking the following: Does the Lukan text itself conjure for us any useful imagery with which we can compare to a given picture? For example, we could consider the inclusion of such motifs as the Temple, being seated, the presence of the doctors/elders, their astonishment, Mary and Joseph finding Jesus and so on. Do the pictures include what we might reasonably expect? And what about what we do not expect? And furthermore, are we even agreed on what the text says.
I wanted to be on much firmer ground with my interpretation of the Temple story, that it is not what I think of as a “disputation.” This is what makes some visual portrayals of the scene of interest. In some examples, one gets a sense of the dispute rather than the discussion on matters of Torah.
That the Lukan Temple story describes a discussion, the style of which has been described as a “disputation” is not [if you will pardon the expression] in dispute. It is understood that what is described within the Temple story is a Jewish Question and Answer technique typical of the time as Roger David Aus describes in his account of the narrative.
Additionally, Brad Young has described ancient Jewish teaching as an unstructured and potentially meandering process, at least from the perspective of the modern learner. The New Testament scene in the Temple takes place within the world of Late Second Temple Judaism. Teaching could take place in many varied settings. Perhaps from a boat as Jesus did in [Luke 5:3] or on a mountain as Jesus did in [Matt 6:25-34] in a field, [Matt 13. 3-9] or within the portico of the Temple, where we imagine the 12-year-old Jesus to have sat, listening to his teachers.
I speculate that perceptions of the Temple narrative blend this Jewish teaching and learning technique with the later emergence of a dialectical and scholarly disputation. Additionally, there is a history of competitive theological disputes between Jews and Christians in, and beyond antiquity to consider. This means that when we speak of “disputations” in the present day we potentially conflate quite disparate elements.
Moreover, there are many paintings and altarpieces purporting to depict the Temple scene only to diverge in tone from the Lukan text. I further hypothesize that some works of art have nudged our understanding of the Lukan text towards the idea of a hostile disputation. There is a possibility that we now read those images back into the Lukan text consciously or unconsciously.
I will affirm that Luke does not set out to portray the doctors as hostile to Jesus, even if we are persuaded by means of some artistic endeavours to the contrary.
The Temple scene as grounded in Judaism
In addition to the ambiguity around the meaning of “disputation” appertaining to the Temple narrative, there has been a tendency to regard the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple story in terms of foreshadowing later disagreements between the adult Jesus and the religious authorities. This becomes commingled with the events in that Temple pericope. In this sense, the Temple story has become emblematic of a more generalised historical dispute between Christianity and Judaism. To what extent this tendency is reflected or even produced by the many paintings of the scene, is open to question.
As I hope to demonstrate, the substance of the teaching/discussion [debate, disputation] between the twelve-year-old Jesus and the teachers is not the central point of Luke’s Temple narrative. The emphasis lies elsewhere:
The Temple story fulfils a number of functions. In brief, it draws attention to Jesus as intelligent and wise and signals his relationship to his parents and by implication, indicates to readers the matter of his relationship to his [or the] father.
Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that far from being a disputation between Jesus and the teachers, the scene is Luke’s attempt to ground the life and mission of Jesus firmly within a Jewish context.
He does this in the following ways:
Firstly, Luke reminds his readers/listeners that Jesus’s parents are devoted and pious Jews making an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, over and above normative requirements and expectations.
Secondly, Jesus’s place is shown frequently to be within the Jerusalem Temple, the authoritative centre of Judaism. Luke could have set the scene elsewhere, perhaps a smaller synagogue, or another town. However, he does not do this. We must understand that the Temple setting [itself] is relevant not merely to this pericope, but to Luke’s entire project. Indeed, Luke’s gospel begins and ends with the Temple setting.
Thirdly, Luke grounds the story within a Jewish social and religious tradition by making frequent allusions to Hebrew scriptures, in particular, 1 Samuel. The entire Temple story is rooted firmly within Judaism to the extent that it would lose coherence if it were otherwise so.
If that is the case, then it would hardly make sense at this point in the gospel narrative for a state of hostility to exist between Jesus and the teachers. And yet some works of art (but not all) apparently focus less upon the amazing twelve-year-old and more on the expressing something negative or strange concerning the elders.
The Lukan Temple Scene and scholarship
So, what’s Luke go to do with it?
It is my contention that the customary artistic interpretation of the Temple scene as a confrontational disputation is at the least, misguided, and in terms of reception, misunderstood. Many of the artworks that depict the scene rely on the historical differences between Judaism and Christianity, in addition to actual public disputations between Jews and Christians for their substance. [Reconstructions of those disputes are available to us in the accounts of the Paris and Barcelona disputations in Hyam Maccoby’s work.]
With the help of scholarship, I will account for how the Temple scene functions to demonstrate not merely Jesus’s uniqueness, but to situate him unambiguously within Jewish tradition, Jewish customs and Jewish places. This will then demonstrate that Luke does not seek to set Christian apart from Jew, rather he seeks to connect them.
I now turn to make some brief remarks on New Testament scholarship and Luke’s use of 1 Samuel. I will then consider the use of Jewish motifs, especially the Temple setting. I will then return to the image and meaning of Jesus being seated before concluding.
New Testament scholarship has undergone a period of reflection in the light of events in the 20th Century, specifically, the Shoah and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. There had been considerable concern that Christianity’s foundational documents might have played a role in cultivating negative stereotypes or the acceleration of anti-Jewish expression which led to the Holocaust.
Discussions regarding the extent to which the New Testament might or might not be anti-Judaism have not resulted in any firm consensus, according to Joseph Tyson.
Summarising the matter briefly, amongst other concerns, the two issues that dominated critiques of 1st Century Judaism were those surrounding concepts of legalism and materialism. Ferdinand Weber (1836-1879) understood legalism to be at the heart of Judaism. And Julius Wellhausen (1844 1918) saw Pharisaic practice as being embedded within a system of religious materialism which he claimed leaves no room for individual conscience.
Many of the critiques levelled by scholars at the Judaism of Jesus’s time were subsequently challenged by Jacob Jervell, the Norwegian scholar and priest. Jervell’s scholarship has contributed to a reappraisal of first century Judaism. (103)
Jervell maintained that in Lukan theology, Torah observance is a requirement for the church in order for it to be a continuation of Israel. At the beginning of the gospel, pious Jews await the fulfilment of God’s prophecies. Moreover, in the Lukan Temple discussion scene, Jervell understands Luke as portraying the child Jesus as an apprentice of the Torah taking the form of a rabbinic disciple situated in the Temple.
Jervell additionally wrote about the inclusion in Luke of the brit Millah or circumcision of Jesus. This is a narrative seen as important in Luke because it demonstrates that Jesus bears the sign of Israel’s identity which in turn gives Jesus the right to speak in the name of God.
How Luke understands and makes use of Old Testament material has been the subject of much scholarly work. My understanding is that Luke’s narrative does not achieve coherence without those references.
We need to understand the interpretations of the Temple story as a “disputation” in this context, [that is to say] understanding the Jewishness embedded within Luke. Jesus is shown to be knowledgeable in Jewish, scholarly terms. I now turn to more recent scholarship which further develops this point.
Luke’s Use of the Old Testament
John Drury describes Luke’s first two chapters as, “packed with Old Testament language” (46) to the extent that there is a possibility of mistaking them for the [quote] “old stories of the Jews – from Judges, Samuel or Genesis.” [end quote]
According to Drury, Luke is the “master historian among the New Testament writers” and displays an historian’s approach, acknowledging that he is an heir to a particular tradition, reaching further back into that tradition than the other gospels. Unlike the other gospels, Luke does not begin the narrative with the cross, nor the baptism, and not even the nativity, but with the promise given to Zecharaiah, the father of John the Baptist.
Luke’s description of Zecharaiah serving in the Temple and being visited by an angel, is in keeping with Jewish scripture’s interest in annunciations and birth stories. It also foregrounds the Temple setting, acting as a reminder of the spiritual and authoritative centre of Judaism. Luke’s text in part, parallels the Hebrew Scriptures in style and content with childless couples, angelic visitations that recall Abraham and Sarah, Elkanah and Hannah.
Roger David Aus – in a substantial examination of Luke’s use of the Old Testament, identifies a number of similarities between the Twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple narrative and the Judaic traditions of the boy Samuel in the Temple in 1 Samuel, 1-3. After identifying some peculiarities in the Lukan narrative, he concludes that the Finding Jesus in the Temple story is derived from the Semitic original, and its author a Palestinian Jewish Christian. I cite selectively here.
In one example, Aus cites the emphasis on the phrase “going up”. 1 Samuel 1:3 says that Elkanah used to “go up” year by year from his native city to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord (in the Temple) at Shiloh. The “going up” motif is repeated, and then again by Hannah who with her now weaned child Samuel, “took him up” with offerings to the house of the Lord in Shiloh. The Temple in Shiloh was compared to the Jerusalem Temple in various Judaic sources.
In contrast with the Lukan story, Samuel’s parents intentionally left him in the Temple. Aus suggests that the 1 Samuel story provides the scriptural basis for Luke to describe Jesus’s parents as “going up” annually to Jerusalem, and on one occasion leaving Jesus in the Temple, albeit unintentionally.
Raymond Brown also sees significance in the expression “going up” in the Lukan Temple story which he says anticipates Jesus’s journey of public ministry as outlined in Luke 9:51 to 19:28.
Aus maintains that the age of twelve for Jesus is not accidental. It corresponds with what is likely to have been Samuel’s age. Although this is not explicitly stated, it can be deduced from Judaic sources such as the writings of Josephus, the Seder Olam and the Midrash on Psalms. (Josephus describes Samuel as being at the age of 12 when he began to prophesy. (Antiquities. V x, 4. 348))
The boy Jesus’s wisdom and understanding can be linked with the boy Samuel’s wisdom and understanding. Indeed, they are both described as growing in wisdom and understanding. There is a clear motif of Jesus as a teacher throughout the gospels which is retrojected into his youth via the Temple story. Samuel’s adult wisdom is similarly retrojected into his youth through Judaic sources.
Samuel’s parents are “astonished” at their child prodigy when Samuel instructs them in the finer points of ritual slaughter in the Temple. The high priest, Eli is similarly astonished. In the Lukan Temple story both parents and teachers are astonished. In Luke 2, verse 47 it says, “all who heard him were astonished at his understanding and his answers” and in verse 48, “When his parents saw Jesus, they were astonished.”
In the matter of being God’s son – there is a correlation between Samuel and Jesus . There is some ambiguity regarding the identity of Samuel’s father. Samuel has three father-figures. Elkanah is Samuel’s father and yet Samuel addresses Eli, the high priest as “father” in a tradition that understands a rabbinic teacher as a father figure. There is an instance of confusion when a voice calls to Samuel in the Temple only for Samuel to confuse the voice of his “heavenly father” (God) with that of Elkanah. The voice proceeds to address Samuel as “son”.
The Lukan Temple story foregrounds the issue of sonship by means of word play with the concept of “father” when Jesus answers Mary’s question:
“Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”  He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
When Jesus says “did you not know” he uses the plural form of “you” (in Greek) to include his father, thus magnifying the incongruity of the situation.
Luke makes frequent use of the Old Testament in order to make the Finding in the Temple story function as a bridge between Jesus’s nativity, circumcision and presentation at the Temple and his later ministry. Moreover, this story is a further opportunity to simply place him in the Temple environment.
The Temple as a motif.
Scholars have noted the frequency with which Luke makes use of the Temple in his corpus. Gregory Lanier (2014) makes the point that Luke stands out among the synoptics for his use of the Jerusalem Temple to frame the narrative. The Temple continually comes to the forefront of the gospel. Lanier further reminds us that compared with Matthew and Mark, Luke emphasises the Temple more and is more positive in his language.
Lanier offers some figures on this, which if we trust them suggest that in Luke’s gospel, the Temple and the city are mentioned 52 times, compared to 35 in Matthew, 26 in Mark. If Luke was writing post 70 of the Common Era, as most scholars appear to believe he was, Lanier says that he had to have a purpose for incorporating what he describes as a “now defunct entity so prominently in the narrative.”
In Chapter 2v22, the episode preceding the Finding narrative, Jesus is presented to the Temple as a the first born by Mary and Joseph. This action foregrounds the fidelity to the religious element of purification in Judaism.
Moreover, Jesus is linked to the Temple in this scene and then returned to it promptly in the Finding scene. As John Drury puts it: “(in the prologue) Jesus and Jerusalem are never apart for long.”
Henk Jonge sees the Temple setting as a means to makes Jesus’s wisdom more distinct. This is why the occasion of Passover is mentioned and then not elaborated upon. It is simply used as the means to get Jesus to Jerusalem in a plausible manner.
The wider significance of the Temple in 1st Century Judaism is worth noting. Lanier clarifies that the Temple was, notwithstanding the presence of synagogues, the beating heart of religious Jewish life. It was the source of authoritative teaching and worship and the primary destination for Jewish pilgrimages and festivals. Additionally, it was the cultural centre of Israel. This would involve the administration of Justice in addition to commerce and banking.
Temples as multifunctional spaces were common practice in the Ancient Near East. Moreover, the Temple was the sacred place where God resided in whatever form this took. That presence for Jews, says Lanier, situates the Temple as the symbolic centre of the cosmos. As Jews were fervently hoping for God to dwell in the Temple once again (439) The questions that arise are: when will this happen and how will this happen? Lanier suggests that Luke’s purpose here is to articulate the major theme of the return of God to the Temple in the person of Jesus, thus understood as a fulfillment of prophecy.
I now turn to the matter of Jesus sitting amidst the rabbis.
That Jesus is described as sitting amidst the doctors is important as it signifies Jesus as a scholar and disciple.
Aus highlights two matters to note here:
- The location of scholarly discussions;
- The custom of sitting while engaged in scholarly debate or teaching.
Teaching and learning would most likely take place in a portico adjacent to the Temple. Josephus’s descriptions provide some guidance on this. However, the precise location of the Bet Ha-midrash (study house) within the Temple precinct is not known. It would have to be positioned somewhere permissible to women because Mary is able to approach Jesus and the elders. The description in Luke conforms to expectations of a scholarly discussion typical of the time of Jesus. Moreover, notwithstanding the highly developed nature of Jesus’s own responses to the elders’ questions, Aus maintains that “there is nothing of a negative nature in the narrative, in which the Palestinian Jewish Christian author, who himself probably still attended the Temple, respectfully speaks of ‘teachers’”
That Aus emphasizes the lack of negativity suggests an awareness of a presence of hostile interpretations and portrayals of the scene.
The elevation of Jesus in a throne-like chair might also be said to deviate, if not literally, then in terms of the spirit of the story because it suggests that Jesus is teaching the teachers. According to Raymond Brown, being seated was the normative position for students or disciples as well as teachers. Therefore, although Jesus was shown as “sitting” whilst teaching in later passages, such as Luke 5:3, where it says: “He sat down and taught the people”, Brown maintains that Luke does not have him teach in this passage.
Luke’s use of language and terminology is of interest to Brown. In the Finding in the Temple story, the Jewish leaders/elders are referred to as teachers. This makes the scene one of amicable friendship and the use of the more neutral term of teachers underpins this. This contrasts with later passages where they are described more disparagingly as “lawyers” and “scribes”. The scene may be constructed to foreshadow later disagreements he argues, but here, the emphasis is on Temple piety. At this point in the Lukan narrative Brown maintains that Jesus is a disciple, not a master.
The goodwill that surrounds the Temple narrative is further emphasized by contrasting it with its re-writing in the apocryphal Infancy Gospel. As Raymond Brown has noted, when the Temple scene is added to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, 19:2 a notion of hostility is introduced. This is because it says: “All paid attention to him and were astounded how he, a child, put to silence (or alternatively, it could be translated as “could interrogate”) the elders and the teachers of the people.”
I believe it is fair to conclude that the Temple scene, whilst describing a teaching and learning technique or discussion, does not convey Jesus as teaching the teachers, nor does it portray the participants as being in dispute or in a state of hostility.
The function of the story – some conclusions
The Temple scene was not designed as an illustration of hostility between two faiths. Rather, Luke’s concern is to situate Christianity within its Jewish roots as an authentic continuance of tradition. He seeks to portray Jesus as an intelligent and wise child and can only do this authentically by providing an echo of 1 Samuel which he assumes his intended audience will recognise.
It may be of further interest to consider what Luke does not say?
Luke does not outline what the issues are under dispute in the scene. He does not elucidate because it is not the focus of the story. There is just an implied discussion on a point of Torah. This is because whatever the topic under discussion, it is not relevant to Luke’s purposes. When Jesus speaks, it is to his mother, not directly to the teachers. (And, it might be assumed, to the listening audience within the story [and without] – given that the plural form of “you” is used. So, did YOU (i.e. the listening audience) not know that I must be about my father’s business?)
He doesn’t describe the teachers as old, hostile, or menacing towards Jesus. Rather, they are amazed (or astonished) at his knowledge. They are impressed by him.
Luke does not indicate a “winner” of the dispute.
He does not deviate from his description of a Jewish discursive technique.
It is the recognition that the Temple narrative has several recognisable and logically founded functions that leads me to conclude with increasing confidence that the pericope is not centred around a dispute and is certainly not one of confrontation. It is centred around the specialness of the twelve-year-old Jewish Jesus and his destiny within Jewish tradition.
The paintings which depict the elders as hostile or even monstrous (as in the example of Durer’s work of 1506) may influence in turn viewers’ understanding and interpretations of the Lukan Temple scene thus seeing it as one of hostility instead of the positive encounter it was intended to be.
To make the doctors ugly or even demonic is to infer something about Jews and Judaism rather than to interpret the Lukan story. It is in the pictures’ attempts at foregrounding of the differences between the two faith traditions that they begin the process of deviation from the Lukan text. Furthermore, in doing this, they disclose the presence of a much wider discourse of disputation which I believe to be firmly embedded within our culture.
(This post is adapted from my paper given at the Ehrhardt Seminar at the University of Manchester, 27th February 2020)
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, 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. It is fair to assume that Holman Hunt admired da Vinci’s work given that he is favourably placed on 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 Supper, The 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.
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 painted? Like 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 Supper, the viewer must actively interpret a blend of biblical and artistic language.
I would argue that Holman Hunt also makes use of symbolic and measured perspective techniques. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
 W.J.T. Mitchell, What do Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Images. London: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
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 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.
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?
It is the hands I begin to notice in paintings of the Disputation. Yes, you’ll see hands in many paintings of course. But in Disputation paintings they point and counter-point, in their making of points. In the Liebermann work, hands express and clasp (above and far below) In the Holman Hunt (below) they blend pointing and counter-pointing into a naturalistic scenario. It would be interesting to learn about the terms of debate here. What were they? What are they? In the original story in the New Testament book of Luke, there is no dispute. The elders are simply “amazed” at the twelve year old. The dispute, such as it was (and is) was to come later.