Carl Bloch’s Jesus is Found in the Temple depicts the very moment Mary and Joseph lay eyes on their son after searching Jerusalem for three days after the flurry of Passover activities. Aspects of this moment might resonate with parents who have lost their child in a crowd, only to find him or her in the last place they thought to look. For Mary and Joseph, however, discovering Jesus in the Temple courts, conversing with the teachers of the law, was particularly unexpected.
The text describes Mary and Joseph’s reaction at finding their son with one word, ‘astonished’ (Luke 2:48; ekplēssō). Within this context, the word could connote a variety of heightened, perhaps even conflicting, emotions and responses—responses which Bloch keeps mostly hidden in his painting. He depicts Mary and Joseph with their backs to the viewer, inviting us to imaginatively ‘complete’ the expressions on their faces.
Such invitation is hardly surprising. This scene was one of twenty-three meditative paintings of the life of Christ that Bloch created between 1865 and 1879 for the king’s oratory in Frederiksborg Castle, Denmark. To encourage meditative reflection, Bloch included seemingly random children in these paintings, likely modelled after his own children, often peering out at the viewer or directing the viewer’s gaze to specific elements in the scene (Pheysey & Holzapfel 2010: 73).
Jesus is Found in the Temple is an outstanding example of this iconographic trope. The most conspicuous figure in the painting is the young boy sitting on a lower step of the Temple, holding a string attached to the caged dove, his sacrificial-offering-in-waiting. He looks curiously, perhaps even in a startled way, at the couple. We might use this boy’s reaction to guide our own reflections as we meditate on the possible thoughts and emotions Mary and Joseph were experiencing in this moment of discovery.
Pheysey, Dawn C. and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel. 2010. The Masters Hand: The Art of Carl Heinrich Bloch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book)
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.