On their way home from the Passover celebration, the Virgin Mary and Joseph could not find 12-year-old Jesus and anxiously searched for him. They found him sitting under the portico of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, discussing theology with the Temple elders. Mazzolino shows Christ seated on a gilded throne, surrounded by theologians. The Virgin and Saint Joseph, identified by their haloes, listen to Christ’s wise words, and the Virgin crosses her arms in reverence.
The structure directly behind Christ may represent the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant containing the tablets with the Ten Commandments was stored. The frieze on its front depicts Moses showing the tablets to his people and above it is the Hebrew inscription: ‘The House which Solomon built for the Lord’ (1 Kings 6: 2).
The similarities between this work and Mazzolino’s Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery (dated 1522), also in the National Gallery, suggest they were painted around the same time.
On their way home from the Passover celebration, Mary and Joseph could not find 12-year-old Jesus and anxiously searched for him. They were surprised to find him before the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem discussing theology with the Temple elders (Luke 2: 41–51).
Mazzolino shows the young Christ under the Temple portico, seated on a gilded throne that is decorated with sphinxes, which were associated with wisdom. He is surrounded by a crowd of theologians, who are consulting texts and engaged in lively debate. The Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, identified by their haloes, appear to the right of where Christ is sitting. The Virgin crosses her arms in reverence as she listens to Christ’s wise words. The elderly woman wearing the white veil behind the Virgin may be her mother, Saint Anne.
The structure with the large niche directly behind Christ may represent the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments was stored. The frieze on its front depicts Moses showing the tablets to his people, alluding to the treasure hidden within. To underscore the importance of this inner building, Mazzolino includes a Hebrew inscription above the frieze: ‘The House which Solomon built for the Lord’ (1 Kings 6: 2). Mazzolino’s inclusion of Hebrew inscriptions in more than a dozen of his paintings is very unusual, but can be found in works by earlier artists in Ferrara such as Tura and Costa (who may have taught Mazzolino). The scene is framed by the pilasters supporting the Temple portico. Ercole de' Roberti, another of Mazzolino’s probable teachers, adopted a similar motif in his Institution of the Eucharist.
Mazzolino’s interpretation of Solomon’s Temple as a domed building recalls representations of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock, both with prominent domes. The pediment contains a relief representing a battle scene which Mazzolino composed from individual figures copied from an ancient sarcophagus in the Basilica of SS. Cosma and Damiano in Rome (he may have seen drawings rather than the actual sarcophagus). Mazzolino has included the young David in the centre of the frieze, pulling towards him the head of his bearded enemy Goliath. The statues in the niches may represent prophets. Mazzolino relished complex architectural settings crowded with animated figures and painted this subject at least four times.
The picture is entirely typical of Mazzolino’s work in its background architecture with antique relief carvings, haloes made up of tiny lines of shell gold, grotesque features and grimacing expressions, and the use of shell gold hatching and decoration on the robes. Mazzolino worked from pattern books and often repeated figures and other elements in his different paintings. Here, Saint Joseph’s face is almost identical to the man to the left of the one with the white hood (and very similar to the bald theologian at bottom left). It is possible that Mazzolino based these figures on the same drawing. The stylistic and thematic similarities between this work and Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery (dated 1522) suggest that they were painted at about the same time.
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