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Jesus amongst the Doctors

Christ among the Doctors

Bernardino Luini (active 1512-1532). The National Gallery – London.

We follow Mark’s account of the days of teaching of Jesus before his passion. As Jesus was walking in the Temple of Jerusalem, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him and they said to him, “What authority have you for acting like this? Or who gave you authority to act like this?” Jesus said to them, “And I will ask you a question, just one: answer me and I will tell you my authority for acting like this. John’s baptism, what was its origin, heavenly or human? Answer me that.” And they argued this way among themselves, “If we say heavenly, he will say, “Then why did you refuse to believe him?” But dare we say human? – they had the people to fear, for everyone held that John had been a real prophet.” So their reply to Jesus was, “We do not know”. And Jesus said to them, “Nor will I tell you my authority for acting like this.” G38

Jesus continues to talk in parables to the priests and he prophesied the fall of Jerusalem. These long discussions and preachings of Jesus precede the Passion of Jesus. In the Gospels the scene of Jesus before the doctors of the temple is the occasion for a major series of teachings before the events of the final act. The Pharisees and Sadducees have to act and to destroy Jesus, they call for the Crucifixion from now on.

Bernardino Luini was a Milanese painter. He must have been born in Luino near Milan around 1481 and he was active in Milan until his death in 1532. Not so many works have survived of this talented master. Not much is known of his life, but he seems to have travelled to Rome and met Raphael. He knew the pictures of Leonardo da Vinci, who had worked in the Milan of the Sforza dictators from 1483 to 1499 and who had left many works in Milan among which the now very famous fresco of the ‘Last Supper’ in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Luini worked often in the style of Leonardo da Vinci, so that his painting ‘Christ among the Doctors’ was long thought to have been Leonardo’s work.

A strange picture indeed is this ‘Christ among the Doctors’. It has something of the strange experiences in depiction of Leonardo. An almost effeminate, very young Jesus is shown in the midst of the Doctors. Jesus is arguing and counting off the arguments on the fingers of his left hand. He holds two fingers up as if to count one and two. He touches with a finger of the other hand the second argument. Jesus is very calm, melancholic, amiable and somewhat sad at the lack of comprehension. He is conscious of his superiority and of his secret of being the Son of God. Jesus’ hair curls as a girl’s and it falls down on his shoulders, accentuating the slightly androgynous representation. One might detect some resemblance between the features of Luini’s Jesus and of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. The full light falls on Jesus’ face, whereas the Doctors remain in the shadows. Il Caravaggio was not the only painter of the moment to apply strongly the contrasts between light and dark. Luini applies the same technique with drama to emphasise the difference in age and argument of Jesus and the Doctors.

Luini was a wonderful realist. He painted the Doctors very characteristically, in all detail of their physiognomy. We find very different temperaments in the Doctors. The one at the far left is angry over Jesus. He looks at Jesus scornfully and will almost certainly condemn him. The Doctor next to him seems a quiet, softer and older – thus wiser - man. At the very right is the real one that will condemn Jesus. This Doctor is the only one with no beard; he may be the final judge. He keeps his lips tightly together in firm determination. His opinion is made and this man will not waver even though he does not understand the real argument and prophecy of Jesus. Next to this man is another heavy-bearded figure who could represent the doubter, the one who would rather be in another place, another time. The contrast between the beautiful young man and the old, wrinkled learnt men is striking.

Luini built in structure around the traditional pyramidal portrait volume of the Jesus figure. The Doctors are set symmetrically around Jesus, but Jesus is painted a head higher than the Doctors are, so he dominates them. The Doctors at the far left and the far right are watching Jesus, taking him a prisoner with their eyes. Jesus will not escape from out of this cross-view. The middle Doctors look outside the frame, in opposite directions and they certainly do not look at Jesus. They are only the bystanders. They are obviously embarrassed of being in the scene.

Bernardino Luini has depicted Jesus as an affable, wise, aristocratic youth that is a prisoner of obstination and tradition. The painting is strange; Luini introduced a twist in the representation of Jesus that can be called an experience. He had another vision of Jesus than most of the painters we know of his period. Which is a welcome surprise in Renaissance portraiture. Luini was searching for a new comprehension of Jesus, experimenting with visions of Jesus and of course he was returning to the sources, as was the essential movement of the Renaissance.

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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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