Young Jesus’s initial response when asked by his mother why he has treated his parents so thoughtlessly—‘How is it that you sought me?’—has frequently been overlooked by biblical commentators, who instead stress the second part of his response—‘Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke 2:49). Such partiality is arguably due to an exegetical tradition of shielding the twelve-year-old boy from any charge of discourtesy, not to mention a more serious failing, in order to present Luke’s account as a disclosure of the divine nature of Jesus himself and his upbringing (Oliver 2018: 127–28). The effect was to highlight Jesus’s divine wisdom and awareness of his own divinity, as evidenced by his calling God ‘my Father’, even at a young age.
Such interpretations have shaped representations of the young Jesus in Christian iconography, steering artists away from depicting Jesus as a typical twelve-year old boy towards more theologically-driven renditions intended to underscore the boy’s divinity. Nowhere is this kind of pictorial ‘theologizing’ more evident than with the multitude of man-babies in paintings of the ‘Madonna and Child’ or with the luminous aureole framing the stoic expression of the adolescent Jesus amid a crowd of astonished, elderly scholars in many paintings of the ‘Disputation’ or ‘Christ among the Doctors’.
All three paintings under consideration here depart from these interpretive/iconographic trends in interesting ways. When they include symbols traditionally meant to communicate Jesus’s divinity, it is to play with them, sometimes even inverting them to invite a more natural or human reading of Luke’s account.
In Carl Bloch’s Jesus is Found in the Temple (1865–79), for example, a typical ‘Disputation’ or ‘Christ among the Doctors’ scene (aureole and all) is foregrounded by the turned backs of Mary and Joseph, and a boy sitting on the Temple steps. What makes this boy particularly striking is not merely that he is the painting’s central focus, but how he compares to Christ in the background. Both figures appear to be around the same adolescent age and wear similar white garments. There is no aureole framing the boy’s face, however, and, unlike Christ, he responds to the distress of Mary and Joseph. Might this boy be the Jesus Bloch saw or wanted to see in place of the seemingly aloof, uncaring Christ in Luke’s depiction of the childhood drama?
Simone Martini’s Christ Discovered in the Temple (1342) likewise illuminates the contentious nature of Jesus’s encounter with his parents. The folded arms and set facial expression Jesus exhibits could suggest his steadfast resolve and commitment to the will of his heavenly Father, which was likely how the church authorities interpreted the boy’s attitude in the fourteenth century. However, as David Brown points out, it is arguably more natural to see Jesus’s response as ‘that of a typical adolescent sulking or in a huff’ at his parent’s rebuke (Brown 2004: 419). Regardless of the urge to read Jesus’s response as one of resignation, Simone’s choice of mannerism for the twelve-year-old opens up a more intuitive or human reading of Jesus’s interaction.
Max Ernst’s The Virgin Chastising the Christ Child before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard, and the Painter (1926), goes further than the aforementioned paintings, perhaps too far, in its evocation of the Virgin’s and Jesus’ humanity. Here it is not just the fact that Mary vigorously spanks the bare bottom of the Christ child as he lies across her lap, but that his halo is seen slipping to the floor. The scene invites us to ask: did Jesus’s halo occasionally slip? Such questions, no doubt, contributed to Cologne’s archbishop closing down the exhibition in which the painting was first displayed and excommunicating Ernst before a large crowd in a nearby cathedral (Faerna 1997: 32).
Ernst’s imagery might, nevertheless, jolt us out of our theological complacency and prompt us to consider anew whether Jesus’s behaviour, particularly in Luke’s account, reflects ‘perfection’, at least regarding familial standards. Even if this means that the young Jesus’s response to Mary takes on a more withering tone, not unlike other Gospel moments where he is less than kind about his own family (e.g. Mark 3:31–35; John 2:4), it is only to emphasize his genuine humanity, which is too often unnoticed or transformed into proof for his other nature.
Brown, David. 2004. Discipleship and Imagination: Christian Tradition and Truth (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Faerna, José María. 1997. Ernst (New York: Cameo and Abrams)
Oliver, P. M. 2018. Donne’s God (New York: Routledge)
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.