At the age of 12, Jesus was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem by Mary and Joseph, who became accidentally separated from him. They found him three days later debating learnedly with the theologians there (Luke 2: 41). This is the moment at which Christ first identifies himself as the son of God: ‘Why are you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’
Jesus looks at us serenely as he counts the points of his argument off on his fingers. The picture is sometimes thought to be the adult Christ disputing with the Pharisees, as he looks older than 12 – the fine down of a new beard is growing on his chin.
The painting was previously believed to be by Leonardo, and may be based on an original design by him. There are numerous versions of this picture: the composition was enormously famous.
At the age of 12, Jesus was taken to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem for the Jewish holiday of Passover by Mary and Joseph. On their way home, Mary and Joseph became accidentally separated from Jesus and did not realise that he had stayed behind at the Temple. He was found three days later debating learnedly with the theologians there (Luke 2: 41). Everyone who heard him was amazed by his answers. When Mary saw Jesus, she asked him, ‘Son, why have you treated us so? Behold your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.’ This is the moment at which we hear Christ’s first recorded words in Scripture, with which he identifies himself as the son of God: ‘Why are you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’
In Luini’s painting Jesus looks at us serenely as he counts the points of his argument off on his fingers. He is surrounded by four elderly theologians who clutch their books and turn to one another, doubting Jesus’s words. His idealised, delicate features contrast with the rough lined faces of the old theologians. Luini has not included the Temple or any setting at all. Hemmed in on both sides, Jesus seems to shine forth from the darkness, as the new Light of the World. This use of extremes of light and dark to heighten the drama of a scene is known in Italian as chiaroscuro, with Luini imitating Leonardo da Vinci’s ’s sfumato – his way of dissolving form into the surrounding darkness in the manner of smoke. The picture is sometimes thought to show the adult Christ disputing with the Pharisees, as he looks older than 12 – the fine down of a new beard is growing on his upper lip and chin.
The painting was previously believed to be by Leonardo himself, and may be based on an original design by him. The facial type of Christ, the soft smoky style of painting, and the grotesque physiognomy of the figure in profile to the right are particularly associated with Leonardo’s work. In 1504 Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, had asked Leonardo to paint a picture of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple – it may have been this painting that Luini knew.
There are numerous versions of this picture, some of a quality comparable to this one – the composition was enormously famous. The German artist Dürer’s Christ among the Doctors of 1506, painted while he was in Venice (now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid), may also have been inspired by Leonardo’s composition. In Dürer’s version Christ appears younger and completely hemmed in by the Pharisees, the grotesque features of whom are even more pronounced.
There is a later copy of the figure of Christ from Luini’s painting also in the National Gallery’s collection. Luini’s work was very popular due to his association with Leonardo, and was frequently copied after his death.
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