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The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple

The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple

William Holman Hunt (1827-1919). Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery – Birmingham. 1854-1860.

Mary and Joseph used to go to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. When Jesus was twelve years old they went to the feast as usual. When the days of the feast were over, they set off for home but Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem without his parents knowing it. Mary and Joseph thought Jesus was in another band of kinsmen returning home. After a day’s journey they went to look for Jesus among their relatives, but failed to find him. So they went back to Jerusalem looking for him everywhere. Three days later they found him in the Temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking him questions. All those who heard him were astounded at his intelligence and his replies. His mother said to him: “My child, why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you!” He replied: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s House?” But they did not understand what he meant G38 .

William Holman Hunt, one of three other original members of the Pre-Raphaelites Brotherhood made a painting of this scene of the finding in the Temple. Hunt started the painting in 1854 while he was on a trip in Israel but it took him five years to finish it. The painting was sold in 1860 for a fabulous sum of money to a well-known art dealer. In ten years, the unknown dilettante Pre-Raphaelites had become a success. The picture of the ‘Finding of the Saviour’ received the general admiration of the public and of the critics. William Holman Hunt was also not a man to paint sacrilegious scenes. He was a through-and-through deeply religious person all his life and most of his pictures have an insisting moralising tone.

The ‘Finding of the Saviour in the Temple’ is a brilliant piece of painting. To the right is a beautiful youth, Jesus, being embraced by a happy Mary. The turbaned Joseph stands behind Mary. Look at the contrasts with Millais’ painting. Here, Jesus and Mary are all grace, in beautiful gowns and Joseph is the strong, old, bearded father as tradition accepts. To the left are the Jewish Pharisees and Sadducees of the Temple of Jerusalem. The most important of the priests wear the Jewish phylacteries. The leading priest holds the Torah, the scrolls with the five books of the Pentateuch of the Old Testament. This priest is blind, maybe a symbol of the outstripped old messages. Very realistic details are abundant in the vivid scenes of the sitting priests. One is explaining what is happening to the blind priest with the Torah. Another one is checking the words of Jesus in scrolls, one is holding a small dish to drink from, and another one is fidgeting with a pencil. Behind the priests are musicians with various instruments. The figures continue in the background with women and their babies around merchants. The elder Jesus will throw all the musicians and merchants out of the Temple. An acolyte seems to be lighting a lantern, as Jesus will be the light in the darkness. Outside, on the right, is a blind beggar. Jesus will eventually cure him. The Temple of Jerusalem is still being built at, but Jesus will predict that all Jerusalem will be destroyed and that not one stone will be left on the other of the Temple. So, Hunt has not just made a painting of the coming of Jesus to the Temple; he has added various symbols in the medieval traditional way. The result is an epic painting with a breadth of truth and prophecy far beyond what a first view might yield.

The painting of William Holman Hunt is in the bright pure colours of the Pre-Raphaelites. The result is astonishingly vivid and fresh, in the full brilliance of the Israelite sunlight. The blue and purple of the young Jesus attract our view, but also the white and black of the Jewish priests on the other side. The composition of the painting is also very strong. The almost classical pyramid of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is balanced by the sitting Jews. Finally, the frame is rectangular and elongated. This is emphasised by the long horizontal lines of the wooden ceiling, which are all carved into a thin lattice that adds to the lightness. The whole picture is full of detail, such as the features of the Temple door behind Joseph.

The ‘Finding of the Saviour in the Temple’ is a rare accomplishment. We may not like anymore some of the sentimentality of the scene and many modern critics object to the supposed harshness of the colours. But the picture remains one of the main cult images of the Pre-Raphaelites and a tremendous work of genius and vision of William Holman Hunt.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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