Project Overview

Fig. 3. William Holman Hunt, The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1860) Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.

The Object in Question

This study will form a close interdisciplinary examination of the painting The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1860) by William Holman Hunt.[1] The painting purports to depict a 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. This project problematises what I describe as a Jewish presence within The Finding.  It is the contention of my thesis is that this presence has hitherto been underacknowledged, avoided or overlooked in art-historical accounts to date. My project seeks to situate The Finding within a genre of disputation paintings.

This renowned example of Victorian painting is one of a series of religiously themed works by Hunt and his fellow Pre-Raphaelites. Pre-Raphaelitism emerged in 1848 as a rebellious student movement modelled on the notion of an inclusive Brotherhood inspired by, amongst other entities the German Nazarenes (or Lukasbrüder). This was a similar “brotherhood” of artists who primarily painted religious scenes in a realistic manner.

There are two versions of the picture which although very similar to one another, are not identical. The principal version is housed in Birmingham and the second, smaller version is housed in the Sudley House Museum in Liverpool.[2] Both versions of the painting are normally displayed, making them current objects of interest.

The Importance of The Finding as an Example of Victorian Painting

The painting is a highly complex work in keeping with its Victorian context. According to Kenneth Bendiner, pictorial complexity is one of a number of notable characteristics of Victorian painting.[3] Hunt’s picture may furthermore be characterised by its textual quality and sense of the narrative. This can be understood in a variety of ways. Firstly, the scene is constructed as an explication of a biblical story, and its composition places the figures as actors within a stage set suggestive of action. Secondly, there is written text explicitly included within the painting and further incorporated into the frame. Thirdly, the painting’s typological symbolism has linguistic qualities and was supplemented by a keyplate and written gloss at exhibition. Lastly, from our twenty-first century standpoint, there is the unavoidable presence of documentation about the painting emanating from the time of its inception hailing from the artist, his associates and subsequent critical commentary. Any “reading” of The Finding must acknowledge this range of textuality.

In art-historical terms, The Finding remains an important work. As one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement it was a key work in Hunt’s career. He regarded it as his equivalent to Leonardo’s “Last Supper” in terms of its significance.[4] Furthermore, Hunt became wealthy and renowned as a result of the picture’s prominence in Victorian London’s art circles and beyond. More significantly for the purposes of my study, the work enjoyed a considerable afterlife. Bendiner maintains that The Finding revolutionised religious history painting.[5] Among the many artists who were subsequently influenced by The Finding, arguably the most prominent was James Tissot, mentioned in Hunt’s memoirs.[6] Tissot had been a French society painter and partly due to his viewing of The Finding, radically changed his style and subject matter to become a prolific painter of biblical and religious subjects. I make this point to assert the painting’s importance as an artefact to study in terms of its influence and contribution to the portrayal of biblical subjects in art. It is important to note that despite the increasing portrayals of modern life in nineteenth century painting, the classics, religion and the bible remained important sources of subject matter for artists.

Hunt’s work in this respect can be seen as an attempt to satisfy a twin requirement concerning notions of truth. In the mid-nineteenth century, metaphysical belief was under scrutiny as a (or “the”) source of truth. In attempting to create a work with apparent scientific and objective attributes Hunt might have been attempting to address both elements. I will return to the matter of realism below.

Hunt’s rendering of the scene makes it replete with symbols and signifiers of Judaism which are fashioned in Holman Hunt’s signature technique of closely rendered realism. Hunt went to great efforts to secure Jewish models, artefacts and settings. Additionally, according to his own accounts, he undertook a considerable amount of research which included learning Hebrew and studying the work of Josephus and the Talmud. He began the picture in Jerusalem in 1854 and completed it in London taking six years to complete it. The picture can be understood as bringing into view Hunt’s English, Christian nineteenth century conception of Jews and Judaism.

The Matter to be Addressed:

As a biblical scene, The Finding is a self-conscious interpretation of a New Testament text. Hunt apparently draws upon a tradition of biblical narrative and exegesis. Hunt’s decision to depict Jesus in the temple as a child requires a consideration of how the Lukan scene has been interpreted, understood and represented in its various forms.

Furthermore, Hunt’s aim of producing a work that exemplifies what might be called a “protestant aesthetic” necessitates a further consideration into the place of religious imagery within various strands of Protestantism. Hunt and his contemporaries were concerned to reinvigorate religious art by realizing an alternative to more Catholic styles of idealization. This will entail an examination of the English Victorian religious and social context within which Hunt operated and thought.

The dominant understanding of The Finding as a New Testament scene is usually explained as one of Christian significance. This is not inaccurate. By 1854 Hunt’s ambition was to become a “painter of the Christ” and he remained concerned with religious matters. However, The Finding’s re-creation of Hunt’s imagined biblical event, one that is religious in scope, is especially pertinent given the subjects of The Finding are all Jews. I understand this to be the case both within the painting’s narrative, i.e., the setting of the Jerusalem temple, the “rabbis” and the Holy Family; and additionally, that the models that sat for Hunt who were Jewish people whom he sought specifically for the purposes of his conception of realism.[7] Furthermore, The Finding functions as an overt critical representation of Judaism which further augments the effects of Hunt’s portrayals.

That this emphatically Christian painting comprises solely of Jewish figures brings into question the construction of both Jewish and Christian identity and what that reveals about developing discourse surrounding religion and race in nineteenth century England. This is important because images of Jews are never neutral, especially when coded as Jews. As David Nirenberg asserts, the Jews and Judaism of Christian art are formed from figures of Christian thought, not the Judaism as experienced by actual, living Jewish people.[8]

My study will move beyond the physical appearance of Hunt’s portrayal of Jews and Judaism to encompass a deeper resonance for understanding The Finding. In foregrounding the dual strands of Jewish and Christian it is important to note that the name given to portrayals of this Lukan scene is that of “The Disputation”.[9] At this stage in my research, it is becoming clear that I will need to consider a long view of this representation encompassing as it does ancient Christian iconography and modern painting. Therefore, in what follows, I propose to consider this “type” of painting as a genre in its own right. This genre spans centuries of art and craft practice.[10]

The Lukan disputation scene is part of Roman Catholic liturgy. Losing Jesus is one of the Seven Sorrows of Mary and finding Jesus is one of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary.[11] Thus, what I refer to as the disputation scene can often be seen in church altar-piece settings. Additionally, there are Protestant adaptations of the scene in imagery. At least one significant painting depicts Luther and Calvin as disputants.[12] It is an image that although of minor significance in the normative Christian artistic canon is nevertheless fairly ubiquitous given its minor role in the gospel.

Characteristics of disputation pictures will sometimes include a childlike and feminised Jesus. He is often illuminated, and there are books and scrolls depicted. Mary and Joseph appear at the periphery. There are elders or rabbinic characters, usually old or ugly. There are differing “types” of rabbi. In many depictions Jesus is positioned on a chair or throne and there are often temple pillars visible. In almost all disputation scenes, the figures are depicted pointing and counterpointing as befits a disputation. Many of these characteristics are apparent in The Finding.

Contrary to what might be expected, an examination of the New Testament text in question will establish that there is no dispute between Jesus and the elders in the Lukan scene. Art historian Judith Bronkhurst recognised this point in 1984.  Her catalogue entry on The Finding for the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition state that “by choosing to make the (The Finding) a scene of confrontation… Hunt has departed from his source.”[13] However, I believe that the assumption that Hunt’s sole “source” was the New Testament is misleading.  Hunt’s disputation scene is, in many ways typical of the genre. Disputation scenes are confrontational, representing as they do a more generalised dispute between Christianity and Judaism. Therefore, I suggest that Hunt’s sources reach beyond the New Testament and can be traced to a long tradition of disputation paintings. I would also add that it is possible to locate the tradition of disputation paintings in The Finding by means of the depiction of pointing and counterpointing amongst the “rabbis” in the scene.[14]

At this stage in my research, I can speculate that the non-canonical Infancy Gospel of Thomas provides some justification for the notion of dispute in the scene. (In particular because there are scenes within depicting the child Jesus in confrontation with teachers.) Furthermore, I believe I can locate the concept of disputation as it is manifested in painting, to the development of scholarly disputations emanating from the medieval university. Recent research into medieval scholarly disputations by Alex Novikoff explores their development from the burgeoning academy into the wider worlds of performance and music. I will suggest that the disputation painting came into being as an additional part of this process.[15]

Biblical, Protestant and Orientalist themes:

In addition to The Finding’s context as both a disputation painting and a significant Pre-Raphaelite work, the painting intersects with further relevant contexts. In my study, I will offer a consideration of the painting as a work of New Testament interpretation with a specifically protestant understanding of that scene. Connected with that, it can be seen to follow an orientalist approach fashionable in the nineteenth century. The painting’s attribution as orientalist has tended to be situated as part of Hunt’s imperialist ambitions in keeping with Edward Said’s Orientalism.[16] Said’s thesis reconceptualised Orientalism away from a branch of European scholarship to one that understood east and west as positioned within an unequal power relationship. Said claimed that western scholarship, in positioning itself as superior, allowed a racist and imperialist agenda to prevail.

It is my contention that with regard to Hunt’s work this aspect is ready for revision in the light of recent research which examines a notion of English Protestant orientalism which is predicated on an identification with Israel (a people) and conceptions of the Holy Land. Further to this, I will also consider the critical response to Orientalism regarding Said’s problematic stance towards Jews.  Scholars have drawn attention to a marginalization of Jews and Judaism in Orientalism, including for example, Jewish contributions to Islamic Studies. Additionally, Said’s failure to understand the Bible as a crucial anchor for traditional orientalism means that a key understanding of orientalist painting and illustration remains underacknowledged.[17] The Finding needs to be understood as part of a fascination with the Bible’s perceived eastern origins which the modern reader identifies as Orientalist.


Technique of Realism:

In addition to imagery and its associations, I will consider the methods used to bring the painting to fruition. This means I will examine Hunt’s specific approach to painting which has often been attributed to the influence of John Ruskin the prominent Victorian critic. Ruskin advocated a philosophy described as “truth to nature” based on close observation of the natural world.[18] There are a number of sources cited for this often-circulated explanation,[19] however the situation remains complex.[20] In terms of Hunt’s approach, his technique needs to be understood firstly as part of a rebellion against the dominance of Royal Academy conventions with their studio-based construction of scenes. Secondly, as part of an increasing drive towards realist techniques in arts and literature more generally.

Furthermore, defining “realism” in this context is fraught with difficulty. Briefly, it can be understood in artistic and philosophical terms as finding truth in the particular rather than the idealised “eternal”. Many divergent styles of art have been described as “realist” or “naturalist”. By whatever methods of paint application, the realist style of representation stressed an emphasis on close observation and was increasingly popular in the nineteenth century. Linda Nochlin has suggested that Realism proffered a pictorial illusion of reality which consisted of renditions that although highly constructed, conformed with commonly agreed ideas about reality rather than empirically proven or naturally occurring phenomena.[21]

The increasing credence given to realist endeavours in the arts generally can be linked to a shifting notion of truth away from competing ideas of divine revelation to a more stable, scientifically observable state of affairs. Therefore, a drive for authenticity underpinned close observations of nature. Artists were encouraged to break away from academic confines and go out into the world and record it truthfully. This fresh approach to looking at phenomena may be understood as part of a wider pattern of thought emanating from the scientific world which was awash with techniques of collecting and observing in the natural sciences.

What is of interest here is that Hunt would appear to be making use of both religious and objective methods in The Finding. That is to say, the painting attempts to portray divine truth and to make this religious scene appear truthful by using methods akin to scientific close observation. Scientific “truths” are alluded to in Hunt’s realistic technique modelled as it was on an idea of objective, disinterested observation.

The Finding may be understood as a portrayal of religious identity, one that is theoretically escapable.[22] One can convert out of one’s religion. Carole Silver has alluded to a racial angle in Hunt’s selective use of Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewish models.[23] Arguably, in The Finding, religious identity is subtly transformed to one of racial identity considered to be scientifically fixed and therefore inescapable. The ramifications of this are apparent to the modern reader in a way that may have eluded the Victorian viewer. The acknowledgement of Realism as a highly constructed technique sits alongside the ambiguous construction of race as a similarly constructed concept.


I have introduced The Finding as a significant Pre-Raphaelite work that can be understood within a variety of contexts. In its attempt to re-create a biblical New Testament scene as though it were an historical event, The Finding touches upon issues concerned with religious and racial identities, Jewish-Christian relations, Protestantism and Orientalism in addition to the notion of disputation.

The customary situating of The Finding predominantly as a Pre-Raphaelite work has hitherto prevented us from recognising that there are questions to be asked about the Jewish presence in the painting. The re-telling of the mythology of Pre-Raphaelitism and the story of Hunt’s adventures abroad in bringing The Finding in being, are not sufficient to account for the many overlapping and intersecting themes connected with this picture.

I argue that the situating of The Finding as a “disputation” painting allows me to see the deeper aspects of Jewish-Christian relations and to recognise a wider discursive context for the picture. It allows me to recognise that Hunt was addressing a tradition of disputation as well as a tradition of disputation paintings. That the disputation is linked to the development of western European scholarship, with its objective to establish “truth” is of relevance given Hunt’s artistic objective in realising his conception of religious truth. That some medieval disputation techniques were developed specifically for the purposes of publicly confronting Jews ties the picture to a tradition that moves beyond the pictorial representation of a specific biblical story to an ideological stance that has contributed to a long tradition of anti-Semitism.

In this respect, one might argue that The Finding does not merely depict a disputation, it is itself part of an on-going disputation.

[1] Hereon in referred to as The Finding.

[2] The reader should assume that in my discussions about The Finding, I will normatively refer to the principal version in Birmingham.

[3] Kenneth Bendiner, An Introduction to Victorian Painting (London: Yale University Press, 1985), 1-3.

[4] Hunt alludes to this in correspondence with John Ruskin. Rylands Bulletin, LIX, 1976, 121.

[5] Bendiner, 76-77.

[6] William Holman-Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Volumes I & II (London, E.P. Dutton & Company, 1914, Legacy Reprint, 2011), Marion Edith Waugh Holman Hunt (Editor) Vol. II, 88.

[7] There is a residual ambiguity regarding the model for the Jesus figure who is a composite figure comprising of both Jewish and non-Jewish models. The principal model has been identified as Cyril Flower.

[8] David Nirenberg, Introduction and 13: “The Judaism of Christian Art”, in Herbert L. Kessler & David Nirenberg, eds. Judaism and Christian Art: Aesthetic Anxieties from the Catacombs to Colonialism (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 8 and 387-427.

[9] This is the only canonical New Testament scene to depict Jesus’s childhood, however there are other apocryphal stories that have influenced disputation scenes, esp. the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

[10] Gertrud Schiller has identified the oldest extant representation of the scene as a 5th Century artefact in Milan. See Gertrud Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art Vol. 1 (New York Graphic Society, 1971), 124.

[11] See Fig.1 below.

[12] Christ among the Doctors 1586 by Franz Franken. See figs. 2 and 3 below.

[13] Parris, Leslie (ed.), The Pre-Raphaelite Exhibition (London, Tate Gallery in assoc. with Allen Lane, 1984), 159.

[14] To the left of The Finding, the red-haired musician points and one of the “rabbis” counter-points instead of winding the tefillin straps on his left hand as might be expected. See fig. 4 below.

[15] Alex Novikoff, The Medieval Culture of Disputation: Pedagogy, Practice and Performance, (Philadelphia,

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013)

[16] Edward Said, Orientalism, (London: Penguin, 1978)

[17] J.R Teitelbaum and M. Litvak, “Students, Teachers, and Edward Said: Taking Stock of Orientalism”, Middle East Review of International Affairs, 10:1 (2006), also, Heidi Kaufman, “A Provocative Blind Spot: Orientalism and Charlotte Tonna’s “Judah’s Lion” Shofar, Vol 24, no. 2 2006, 70-91., and Ibn Warraq, Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said’s “Orientalism”, New York, Prometheus Books, 2007.

[18] E.T.Cook and A. Wedderburn, Collected Works of John Ruskin, eds., (1902-12)

[19] For examples see Marcia Werner, Pre-Raphaelite Painting and Nineteenth Century Realism, (Cambridge, University of Cambridge Press, 2005), 19, n26.

[20] Marcia Werner challenges this dominant narrative in ibid., 14-43.

[21] Linda Nochlin, Realism, (London, Penguin. 1971) 13.

[22] Conversion to Christianity was an increasingly common phenomenon for Jews in 19th century Europe as a means to obtain emancipation (amongst other reasons). See Robert Michael Smith, “The London Jews’ Society and Patterns of Jewish Conversion in England, 1801-1859”, in Jewish Social Studies Vol. 43 No. 314 (1981) 275-290, and David Sorkin, The Transformation of German Jewry 1780-1840 (Oxford University Press, 1987) 37, 111.

[23] Carole Silver, “Visions and Revisions”, chapter in Katherine Lochnan and Jacobi Carol (eds.) Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelite Vision. (Art Gallery of Ontario, 2008) 15-30.

This document forms part of the RD2 submission to the university, September 2018. 

Joyful Mysteries

Fig. 1.



Fig. 2 Christ among the Doctors 1586 Franz Franken – as an altarpiece.