We need beauty, because there is so much ugly. Roberta Green Ahmanson

W.H.Hunt: The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple

ArtWay Visual Meditation September 9, 2018

William Holman Hunt: The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple

In the Fullness of Time, a Moment: Jesus in the Temple at Twelve

By David Lyle Jeffrey

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) began his artistic career in London, studying alongside Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Ford Maddox Brown and John Everett Millais. Together they formed the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, that started off as a secret society dedicated to rejecting what they saw as the dead hand of classical formalism promoted by the Royal Academy. While Hunt had been an atheist or agnostic, he was converted through reading the Bible in 1851.As a result of his strong response to the Scriptures, he found himself more attracted to more evangelical rather than high church liturgy and spirituality.

By 1853 he painted the iconic The Light of the World, one copy of which is now in Keble College, Oxford; the other in Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. Determining on a “single-minded application of [his] art to the service of Christ,” he desired to depict biblical scenes as faithfully as possible, going so far as to travel to the Holy Land in 1854 to capture the atmosphere and local color more accurately. Later that year he began work on The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, his masterpiece. He was not to finish it for almost six years, making of his painting an extended form of meditation on the biblical text.

This painting, visually focused on the twelve-year-old boy Jesus, highlights a moment in Saint Luke’s narrative which is not elsewhere recorded in the Bible. Hunt depicts it with a tapestry of typological clues and symbolic elements in such a way as to deepen the rich christological significance of Luke’s narrative. While the viewer’s eyes are naturally turned on the face of Jesus, apparently absorbed in thought, the maternal embrace of Mary, whispering rather than rebuking him aloud, captures a tender yet tense familial moment.

Emotions are registered also on the faces of the elders, who are represented by Hunt in such a way as to display a variety of responses. These are not the faces of wonderment and suspended judgment that one finds in Giotto’s version of the scene (which more clearly reflects the elders’ astonishment —Luke 2:47), but rather express self-conscious, hardened attitudes designed to make the elders in this episode proxy to the Pharisees and Sadducees who will later contest Jesus in his ministry. One of the elders is blind, like the blind beggar leaning against the outside corner (Luke 6:39–40; cf. John 9:1–11).

Inside, in the background, a lamb is being prepared for slaughter, while outside we can see that a cornerstone for some edifice is being set and it is receiving the scrutiny of the builders (cf. Matt. 21:42). A part of Malachi’s prophecy, “And the Lord, whom ye see, shall suddenly come to the temple” (Mal. 3:1) is inscribed in Latin and Hebrew on the golden frame of the temple door. As is typical of Hunt, the iconography is self-consciously organized, here so as to show that the traditional place of the holy, the temple, was in the fullness of time entered bodily by the one who alone is holy, and that neither the elders nor Mary and Joseph really understood that most crucial fact at the time.

The texture, colour and finish of the canvas compose a dazzling beauty. The painting has a jewel-like luminescence. Hunt’s search for a locus for the holy had taken him in a different direction than his fellow Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood colleagues, one in which the canonical Scriptures rather than Marian or Arthurian legenda hold the interpretative key. His distinctive artistic achievement makes him not only the most eminent evangelical painter of his era, but shows him to be an artist-theologian, a spiritually discerning interpreter of the Bible he loved.


William Holman Hunt: The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, 1854–1860, oil on canvas, 55 1/2″ × 33 3/4″. Birmingham Museum and Gallery

David Lyle Jeffrey, FRSC, is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities at Baylor University, as well as Guest Professor at Peking University and Professor Emeritus at the University of Ottawa. His most recent book is In the Beauty of Holiness: Art and the Bible in Western Culture (Eerdmans, 2017).



1. BEAT RINK DISCUSSES REINHOLD NIEBUHR – The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (Christ and Culture, 1951) identifies five different categories of relationship between Christianity and culture. As the first category he points out that Christians have at times separated themselves radically from the surrounding culture (Christ against culture). The biblical starting point for this is John 2,15: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Beat Rink reflects on the Christ against culture position in TUNE IN 271 and 272: Read more (in English and German)

2. ARTIST GATHERING IN SOUTH AFRICA - 5 October – 6 October, East Mountain, Stellenbosch: Artist Gathering. Last year and in 2016 a gathering for artists took place just outside of Stellenbosch on a wine farm/ guest house called East Mountain. This year the conference will go ahead again, and we have invited various practicing artists who are of Christian faith to be guest speakers. There is also opportunity for artists who are believers to network, discuss theological/academic and practical struggles central in their art practice and to be encouraged by the teaching and input. This year it will be organised by Ydi Coetsee and Heidi Salzwedel. Dr James Krohn of Krux Centre for Christianity and Culture will be overseeing the event.

3. EXHIBITION IN DANMARK - 1 September – 9 December, Art Center Silkeborg Bad, Gjessøvej 40, Silkeborg: exhibition Beyond the Body. We are part of the stream of life. We change constantly. How do we deal with our transient body? How do we envisage death, that ultimate transformation? For Beyond the Body the Dutch curator Anne Berk invited seventeen artists with works reflecting on transience, death and commemoration in a secularized era. Central in Célio Braga’s work is the transience of the body. He incises photos of the skin that envelopes our body, to remind us of our vulnerability. Alet Pilon channels our fears, to adjure death. When she got cancer, Pilon created a pile of bodies with telling title Not Me. In his gruesomely filmed performance with bees, Springtime, Jeroen Eisinga puts his body to the test, exploring the border between life and death. X-teriors VIII of Desiree Dolron shows a fragile body in the color of alabaster. Is he asleep or dead, delivered from his suffering? If death is The End, we prefer to ignore him, challenging Roy Villevoye in The Clearing to visualize his own death and that of his Papuan friend as a tangible reality. Martin uit den Bogaard attaches electrodes to a (donated) human finger, suggesting that dead matter emits energy. He finds consolation in the fact that on the level of atoms, we fully reincarnate. It is one thing to die, it’s something else to cope with the loss of your beloved. With Pietá, Erszébet Baerveldt made a heartbreaking film about mourning and the irreversibility of death. While walking through the exhibition of 17 artists’ works the visitor will experience a symbolic last passage through different stages: Before Death - Death - After Death - Survivors/ Commemoration. During the exhibition, curator Anne Berk will give several interactive guided tours in English. There are also tours in Danish. Tu – Su, 10 am – 5 pm.

For more exhibitions, lectures, conferences etc. inside and outside your country, click here

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