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Legends of the Madonna - Dispute in the Temple

( Originally Published 1895 )



Ital. La Disputa nel Tempio. Fr. Jésus au milieu des Docteurs.

The subject which we call the dispute in the Temple, or " Christ among the Doctors," is a scene of great importance in the life of the Redeemer. (Luke ii. 41-52.) His appearance in the midst of the doctors, at twelve years old, when he sat " hearing them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astonished at his understanding and his answers," has been interpreted as the first manifestation of his high character as teacher of men, as one come to throw a new light on the prophecies, —

For trailing clouds of glory had he come From heaven, which was his home;

and also as instructing us that those who are to become teachers of men ought, when young, to listen to the voice of age and experience; and that those who have grown old may learn lessons of wisdom from childish innocence. Such is the historical and scriptural representation. But in the life of the Virgin the whole scene changes its signification. It is no longer the wisdom of the Son, it is the sorrow of the Mother which is the principal theme. In their journey home from Jerusalem, Jesus has disappeared ; he who was the light of her eyes, whose precious existence had been so often threatened, has left her care, and gone she knows not whither.

"No fancy can imagine the doubts, the apprehensions, the possibilities of mischief, the tremblings of heart, which the holy Virgin-mother feels thronging in her bosom. For three days she seeks him in doubt and anguish." At length he is found seated in the temple in the midst of the learned doctors, " hearing them and asking them questions." And she said unto him, " Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us ? behold, I and thy father have sought thee sorrowing." And he said unto them, "How is it that ye sought me ? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business ? "

Now there are two ways of representing this scene. In all the earlier pictures, it is chiefly with reference to the Virgin-mother ; it is one of the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary. The Child Jesus sits in the temple, teaching with hand uplifted ; the doctors round him turn over the leaves of their great books, searching the law and the prophets. Some look up at the young inspired Teacher — he who was above the law, yet came to obey the law and fulfil the prophecies — with amazement. Conspicuous in front stand Mary and Joseph, and she is in act to address to him the tender reproach, "I and thy father have sought thee sorrowing." In the early examples she is a principal figure, but in later pictures she is seen entering in the background ; and where the scene relates only to the life of Christ, the figures of Joseph and Mary are omitted altogether, and the Child-teacher becomes the central, or at least the chief, personage in the group.

In a picture by Giovanni da Udine, the subject is taken out of the region of the actual, and treated altogether as a mystery. In the centre sits the young Redeemer, his hand raised, and surrounded by several of the Jewish doctors ; while in front stand the four fathers of the Church, who flourished in the interval between the fourth and sixth centuries after Christ; and these, holding their books, point to Jesus, or look to him, as to the source of their wisdom — a beautiful and poetical version of the true significance of the story, which the critics of the last century would call a chronological mistake. (Venice, Academy.)

But those representations which come under our especial consideration at present are such as represent the moment in which Mary appears before her Son. The earliest instance of this treatment is a group [attributed to] Giotto [or some pupil, in the Academy, Florence]. Dante cites the deportment of the Virgin on this occasion, and her mild reproach, "con atto dolce di madre " (Purgatorio, c. xv.), as a signal lesson of gentleness and forbearance. It is as if he had transferred the picture of Giotto into his vision ; for it is as a picture, not an action, that it is introduced. Another, by Simone Memmi in the Royal Institution at Liverpool, is conceived in a similar spirit. In a picture by Garofalo, Mary does not reproach her Son, but stands listening to him with her hands folded on her bosom. In a large and fine composition by Pinturicchio, the doctors throw down their books before him, while the Virgin and Joseph are entering on one sides The subject is conspicuous in Albert Dürer's "Life of the Virgin," where Jesus is seated on high, as one having authority, teaching from a chair like that of a professor in a university, and surrounded by the old bearded doctors ; and Mary stands before her Son in an attitude of expostulation.

After the restoration of Jesus to his parents, they conducted him home; "but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart." The return to Nazareth, Jesus walking humbly between Joseph and Mary, was painted by Rubens for the Jesuit College at Antwerp, as a lesson to youth. Underneath is the text, "And he was subject unto them." It has been called by mistake " The Return from Egypt" [and is so named in the catalogue of the Metropolitan Art Gallery, New York, where the picture now belongs].



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