Christ Discovered in the Temple by Simone Martini

Simone Martini

Christ Discovered in the Temple, 1342, Tempera and gold on poplar, 49.6 x 35.1 cm, National Museums Liverpool [Walker Art Gallery]; Given by the Liverpool Royal Institution 1948, WAG 2787, Bridgeman Images

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That Difficult Son

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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.

 

References

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


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