The scene of the Finding in the Temple, where a twelve-year-old Jesus amazes the temple elders with his biblical knowledge, was a familiar motif already in early Christian art. The story in the Gospel of Luke relates how Jesus became separated from his parents after their Passover visit to Nazareth, and how it was not until three days later that they found their son in the temple deep in discussion with the elders. The scene became popular once again in seventeenth-century art, and many painters, especially in Southern Europe, were attracted to the theme and its theatrical possibilities for drama and contrast. Dirck van Baburen’s painting features such a dramatic depiction, where a densely packed group of elders are portrayed through their arm gestures, draped garb, and puzzled gazes as they stand and sit around the young Jesus.
Van Baburen is counted among the so-called Utrecht Caravaggisti. Along with several other likeminded Dutch painters, he stayed in Rome 1610–20 and studied the Italian Baroque and not least Caravaggio, whose mundane cast of characters, powerful emotions, and eye for the critical moment greatly influenced his followers from Utrecht. In van Baburen’s large-scale painting, elements such as the dramatically focused lighting, the gesticulating hands, and the bare, unclean feet have their origins in Caravaggio’s art. The slightly caricatured elders have been placed at the very front of the picture plane, so that the division between their world and ours is almost suspended. The twelve-year-old Jesus stands further into the room, and behind him we can discern his parents, Mary and Joseph.
The National Gallery bought the painting from Johan Christian Dahl in 1843.
Text: Ellen J. Lerberg
From "Highlights. Art from Antiquity to 1945", Nasjonalmuseet 2014, ISBN 978-82-8154-088-0