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

A business trip to Birmingham (UK not Alabama) afforded the opportunity to visit the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to see it’s wonderful Pre-Raphaelite collection. I was particularly keen to see William Holman Hunt’s ‘The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple’.



It is a large painting (about three feet high and four and a half feet wide) depicting the familiar New Testament story of Mary and Joseph finding the young Jesus in the temple in deep discussion with the rabbis. Hunt went to Jerusalem to find models for his characters wishing to produce an ‘ethnographically’ correct painting. He began it in 1854 shortly after his conversion to Christianity and completed it in 1860. Around the edge of the picture is written:

The finding of the Saviour in the Temple
and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold Thy father and I 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?

Hunt portrays this incident as the moment in which the process of the ‘Old Law’ represented by the rabbis being superseded by Christ’s ‘New Law’ is begun.

Even before we consider what is inside the picture frame, Hunt has placed images relating to his theme on the frame itself.

On the left hand side of the frame we see a brazen serpent, representing the Law of Moses. On the right hand side we see a cross of thorns and a garland of flowers representing the New Law. At the top of the frame is a sun representing the New Law and an eclipsed moon representing the Old Law.


Once we start to look at the picture itself we see, at the far right hand side, builders still working to complete the construction of the temple while all that the temple represents in terms of the Mosaic law of sacrifice is about to be swept away. It will not be many years before Jesus will prophesy that the temple itself will be utterly destroyed.

At the right of the picture, Jesus is being embraced by a his relieved mother. Joseph stands behind Mary with a look of concern on his face. Some contemporary reviewers objected to Hunt portraying as a working class Jew. (Note that Jesus is wearing a belt with a cross on it).

To the left are the Jewish leaders. The painting shows the rabbis in the temple reacting in various ways to the young boy before them. Each is a type of varying responses to the Saviour. The first rabbi, moving from left to right, represents the chief Rabbi. According to Holman Hunt’s friend, Frederic George Stephens, “Nearest of the Rabbis is seated an old priest, the chief, who, blind, imbecile, and decrepit,” clutches the Torah to himself “strenuously yet feebly; his sight is gone, his hands seem palsied . . . He is the type of obstinate adherence to the old and effete doctrine and pertinacious refusal of the new.”

As such he is ‘blind of eye and of heart’ and is a symbol of the Jewish leaders who rejected Christ and blindly, perhaps even desperately clung to the Old Law. Next to the old man is a second rabbi described by Stephens as “a good-natured, worldly individual, with a feminine face, who, holding the phylactery-box, that contained the promises of the Jewish dispensation in one hand, touches with the other that of the blind man, as though to . . . express a mutual satisfaction in their sufficiency, whatever may come of this new thing Christ in conversation has suggested”. He is turning away from Christ and towards the old man and thus rejects the very Messiah he professes to be awaiting.

The next man has the intense face of a zealot and has an open scroll of scripture in front of him. – perhaps he has been checking Jesus’ words against the scriptures. Stephens describes him as “eager, unsatisfied, passionate, argumentative.” He would appear to have been debating with Jesus at the point of Joseph and Mary’s arrival. The next rabbi along seems complacent and detached and appears to be fiddling with what looks like a needle. He is dressed in rich clothing, wears a bracelet and a diamond ring – I wonder if the needle refers to Jesus’ future teachings about rich men and the eye of a needle? Stephens says of him “He is a Pharisee of the most stiff order. Beyond even the custom of the chief Rabbis and ordinary practice of his sect, he retains the unusually broad phylactery bound about his head.” A Levite behind him is whispering in his ear and seems to be pointing scornfully at Jesus.

The next listener along is reclining indolently and holding a dish containing some sort of liquid – could this be a reference to Christ as the living water?

Stephens says that the is sixth Rabbi “an envious, acrid individual, a lean man” who has arrived late at the Temple and stretches forward to see the face of the Virgin. The seventh and last of the Rabbis is a “mere human lump of dough . . . a huge sensual stomach of a man, who squats upon his own broad base, and indolently lifts his hand in complacent surprise at the interruption”.

In the background, beyond the circle of rabbis can be seen a man taking a lamb without blemish to be sacrificed merchants selling sheep and a man counting his money. Jesus will fulfil the law and obviate the need for animal sacrifice and will cleanse the temple of the merchants and money changers.

Slumped against the door of the temple is a blind beggar representing those who will be healed during the Saviour’s ministry.

On the door, just above Joseph’s head is an inscription in Latin and Hebrew. The text is Malachi 3:1: “And the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his Temple.” In the painting, the Lord has come to his temple and those who allegedly seek him do not recognise him.

Above the heads of the participants a flock of doves flies in representing heavenly approval. Through the door, outside the temple walls can be seen the Mount of Olives reminding us that the temple is close to the places of atonement, crucifixion and ascension.

I had looked forward to seeing this painting and it did not disappoint – it is a great work of art! I love its vivid, intense colours and intricate detail. I love it’s messages and the combination of realism and iconography.


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