The Latin script on the book Mary holds in Simone Martini’s Christ Discovered in the Temple (1342) indicates, if it is not already apparent, that this painting depicts Mary’s question to the twelve-year-old Jesus in Luke 2:48: ‘Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously’. In the original Greek text, Mary’s words take on a more stern, admonishing tone. She does not address the adolescent Jesus as the young man he is, but uses a more juvenile descriptor that puts him firmly in his subordinate place—‘child/son’ (teknon). Moreover, her rebuke seems to express less concern for Jesus than for what he has put them through (Edwards 2015: 95).
Simone’s painting, however, may present us with a different interpretation again. Here Mary’s outstretched hand suggests that she is pleading with the apparently obstinate, ill-tempered Christ. Joseph, grasping Jesus’s shoulder, looks down at him and gestures towards his wife, as if prompting Jesus to listen to his mother. Mary’s supplicant posture is further highlighted by her sitting on a low bench, looking up at Jesus from a position of humility. Her furrowed brow and pursed lips could imply anger, but her body language seems to cast this expression in the realm of maternal fear or worry.
Regardless of how we interpret Mary’s tone and demeanour when questioning Jesus in Luke 2:48, what becomes clear from their interaction is that parent–child relations are not always smooth or easy, even between the Virgin Mother and the Christ Child. The feminist theologian Els Maeckelberghe may be right when she states that if women ‘attribute any place at all to Mary, they see her above all as “that woman with a difficult son”’ (Maeckelberghe 1989: 125). Simone’s painting brings these suggested parent–child tensions in Luke’s passage to the fore.
Edwards, James R. 2015. The Gospel According to Luke, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. by D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)
Maeckelberghe, Els. 1989. ‘“Mary”: Maternal Friend or Virgin Mother?’, in Motherhood: Experience, Institution, Theology, ed. by Anne E. Carr and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (Edinburgh: T&T Clark), pp. 120–27
41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom; 43and when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, 44but supposing him to be in the company they went a day’s journey, and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances; 45and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; 47and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48And when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” 49And he said to them, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them. 51And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.