Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple



The picture commenced by Mr. Hunt at Jerusalem, in 1854, is finished at last. One picture, and that not very large, is the fruit of more than five years of a painter’s labour! This is worth thinking about, not as affording curious data for calculating the number of pictures a man might produce at such a consumption of time, during the comparatively short period wherein he possesses his greatest powers, because if we desire great pictures, or any other thing which is really great, we must not be over-anxious for speed of production. This labour of five years evidences the possession of those very faculties which are needful for the creation of the greatest works—patient labour, unwearied devotion, tenacity of purpose, a willingness to forego immediate fame,—these are the means by which the highest creative power receives its fullest development.

For the last year or two rumours have come from the artist’s studio that the picture was all but finished; the lucky few who had seen it were full of satisfaction; but the painter himself was not satisfied,—the idea was still too far above the embodiment; much that seemed very good had to be painted out and the labour begun anew.

I think that we who are not artists are too apt to under-estimate the artist’s labour. We accept the beautiful outline and splendid colours as a sort of holiday-work wrought in perpetual joy of heart. We do not bear in mind that if the work is truly great it has been executed at the full tension of the artist’s powers, that there has been in all probability a bitter struggle with doubt and uncertainty before the easel, till the man grew disgusted over his brightest thoughts, and had to leave his painting awhile and seek fresh strength ere he could return to his labour. We know that authors are forced to put down the pen. Recollect the grim way in which “Jane Eyre” was written—long intervals when it was not in the heart to work. When we look on a great painting, let us sympathise with the stern labour which is hidden beneath its loveliness.

The pre-Raphaelites will point to this picture in absolute vindication of their principles—it was a reproach to them that the force of their accessories destroyed the main interest of their pictures. You must paint down your objects of still life was the cry. Not so, they replied; we must repair our error by striving to paint our countenances up; if all parts of the picture are truly painted, the interest of the human face will give it due dominance in the composition.

It is curious to observe how this adherence to truth of detail has led the pre-Raphaelites to create a principle in religious painting opposed to previous methods. Great religious painters hitherto have striven to attain their aim through idealisation—the countenance was idealised until it had almost lost its human interest—to mark the divineness of the subject the surrounding accessories were generally of a purely conventional character—the heavenly host introduced;—by making the picture unearthly it was sought to make it divine. With the pre-Raphaelites the reverse; their principle is realisation; in showing us as truly as possible the real, we are to behold the wonder of the divine.

So on this principle it was necessary for Mr. Hunt to strive for the utmost possible truth. It was necessary to resuscitate an architecture whereof all records beyond certain traditions have passed away—the Temple, of which not one stone remains upon another, had to be reproduced in its most probable aspect. According to tradition, one portion of that Temple yet remains—the natural rock pavement, reddish limestone fading at the edges into slate-colour, over which is now reared the mosque of Omar. This pavement forms the foreground of the picture, and above it is raised, as of old, one of the covered outer courts or cloisters of the Temple—slender golden columns in the form of palm and pomegranate stems conventionalised, supporting a series of low arched roofs which run horizontally with the picture: this roofing is of gilt fretted work, the interstices filled in with ruby, purple, and other coloured glass. So by the law of perspective, as we look up, we behold ridge below ridge of jewel- work resting on the golden columns, and glowing with transmitted light. The background, shutting in the court, is a screen of delicate metal work, the details standing out against the bright glare of day. There is an opening in the screen which shows the distant country, clear outline in the noon-day heat, untempered by the slightest mist. To the right of the picture, in the foreground, is a brazen gate opening from a flight of steps which leads down to the Court of the Gentile. Now the architecture of this court follows the fashion of the Greeks,—marble columns and Corinthian capitals, in strong contrast with the distinctive Hebrew character of the holier portions of the Temple. According to a tradition, this court was constructed during our Saviour’s childhood, and the association at such a period of Gentile art with the architecture of the exclusive Jew in the great edifice dedicated to the worship of Jehovah, possesses a strange significance. The builders are still at work, the space for the “corner stone” is unfilled. Beyond the wall of this court rises Mount Scopus, cypress trees and olive gardens; a long range of barren hills in the furthest distance.

After this manner was the glory of the second Temple which Herod the Great had rebuilt with great magnificence to flatter the pride of the Jews, and in the thought of that glory they made their angry retort, “Forty and six years was this Temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?”

Although this representation of the architecture of the Temple may not be quite historically true, yet, as regards the other portions of the picture, the unchanging character of Eastern life has retained till now the old forms of costume and other common objects as they existed at the period of our Saviour’s life on earth. Almost every detail of the present, truly painted, becomes a fact of the past.

But, more wonderful than this, the old customs still continue; the learned Jews still sit together in places of public resort, to talk of doctrine and tradition; the Roll of the Law is as sacred, and as zealously to be kept from profanation, now that the Moslem holds the sacred city, as it was before the Roman had destroyed the Temple of Jehovah.

On its naturalistic principle, the picture aims at showing us one of the ordinary days of religious life in the courts of the Temple. The Doctors are sitting together on a semi-circular bench, and some matter of strange interest animates their discussion. A peasant boy has joined himself to their company, sitting at the feet of one of the youngest of their number,—tradition says, Nicodemus; and this boy has been listening to their arguments, and has asked them certain questions, and has astonished them by his understanding and answers. The questions of the boy have sounded strangely in the ears of these learned men. The blind High Priest holds with nervous grasp the sacred Rolls of the Law, as the Rabbi at his side repeats in his dulled ear something that the boy has said. No wonder the old man holds the Rolls of the Law so tightly in his feeble hands, for it may well be that the words which he hears contain the germ of those questions which on another day were to put the chief priests to silence and confusion.

God’s words at both periods, but spoken now in the voice and timid manner of childhood, to be spoken again in the lapse of years with the force of Perfect Man.

“Only the strange questions of a precocious child,” think these learned Doctors, and the whole occurrence will presently pass from their minds. Not so with Him: the questions which had arisen in long communings on the hill-side at Nazareth are answered now. He has spoken to the men of highest intellect in the land. Their answers to His questions, given with the weight of authority, and the dignity of age, will abide in His mind. The hollowness and falsehood of those answers will grow more and more apparent with His increase in wisdom during those after years that he dwelt in Nazareth subject to His parents.

“Gifted with extraordinary mind, yet only a peasant boy!” think these learned men. Those are His parents—humble folk, who have sought him, and are standing there amazed, as well they may be, at the position in which they have found their son; and He, seeing his parents enter the court, has broken suddenly from His thoughts, and risen to meet them, but in a moment every feeling is absorbed again in the great idea which is forming in His mind, and though His mother draws him anxiously to her arms, He is lost to all earthly consciousness—one hand is passive in her tender grasp, and the other, with purposeless energy, is twitching at the fastening of His girdle. Presently His reply to their expostulation, “Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?”

I said we were to see in the real the wonder of the Divine.

We behold Him in the picture as they beheld Him that one day at Jerusalem, clad in an ordinary garment, the son of a poor carpenter, but we know that He is the Son of God. The occurrence, which a few days will efface from their recollection, is sacred to us—merely the wondering eyes of an intelligent child, as they beheld his earnest gaze,—unfathomable depth of divine spirit to us. The sadness of that young face, which would be scarcely perceptible to them, deepens in our eyes, a foreshadow of that sorrow which was to cling to His life on earth. They thought it was the surprising talent of a child; we know that it was the development of that wisdom which is divine.

With regard to Mr. Hunt’s conception of the Holy Family.—As far as I am aware, the Virgin and Joseph have been generally painted as conscious of the real nature of their child,—that they did not comprehend it is certain. “And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them.”

There is the mother’s tender love in the Virgin’s countenance, troubled with amazement—amazement too, and deep feeling, in the father’s countenance: but there is the absence of that responsive sympathy which arises from comprehension and appreciation. He stands isolated even in his mother’s arms. Alone, as regards human sympathy, in this great era of His childhood, though in the midst of the busy life of the Temple, as He was so often to stand alone, without the solace of human sympathy and love, in his after life.

When we turn from the group of the Holy Family, a unity of purpose binds together the separate details of the picture, and insensibly draws our thoughts back again to Him. The consecration of the first-born—the lamb without blemish borne away for sacrifice—the table of the money-changer—the seller of doves—the blind cripple at the gate—the superstitious reverence for the Books of the Law, shown by a child who is reverently kissing the outer covering—the phylacteries on the brow—the musicians who have been assisting in the ceremonial of the Temple, and are gazing curiously on the scene, little witting that the boy before them is the descendant of the Royal Psalmist. So it comes to pass that this truthful rendering of detail strikes the chords of those feelings which vibrate in our hearts with every incident of His sacred career. A grand prelude to the after ministry of Christ—conceived in a fine spirit—as the great musician places the theme of his leading ideas in the overture, which ideas are to be wrought to their fulness in the after portions of his work.

It has not been my object to consider the picture technically; that question has been already very fully discussed in other critiques. Everybody must acknowledge the marvellous finish of the execution—utmost delicacy combined with power of effect—the harmony and richness of the colouring—the brightness, true to Eastern climes, though dazzling to Western eyes—the wonderful painting of the countenances. There is no danger that the technical merit of the picture will be overlooked, but the high position that it holds stands on other grounds than manipulative skill. We must bear this in mind, that the picture, to be judged fairly, must be judged by the principle of realisation—not hastily condemned because it does not follow the commonly adopted method of idealisation. Looking at it solely from the ideal point of view, the meaning and purpose of the picture would be utterly misunderstood. And after all, with regard to this question of idealisation, it is evident, in a system of treatment which is based upon the principle of embodying the greatest possible amount of truth, that in the highest parts of this picture the very power of realising necessitates the fullest powers of idealising—and so, in painting the head of Christ, the terms realise and idealise become almost synonymous. In his earnest desire to represent our Saviour with the greatest possible truthfulness, Mr. Hunt has attained by his method a result which, in holiness of feeling and depth of tenderness, rivals the efforts of the greatest masters of religious art.

I will urge this in conclusion. We may appreciate either principle of religious painting, without depreciating the other. We may admire the examples of both methods. It is especially an error in art-criticism to become a vehement partisan. There is an appropriateness and a value in both these principles, and we miserably narrow the kingdom of Art if we condemn Raphael because he was not a realist, or Holman Hunt because he is not an idealist.

G. U. S.