About the artwork
There are two inscriptions on William Holman Hunt's 'The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple'. The first is straightforward. On the ivory slip between picture and frame is the title and some lines of scripture from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter II verses 48-49: ‘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? whist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?’
The other inscription is in the body of the picture itself. On the temple door, in Hebrew and in Latin, is a verse from the Old Testament book of Malachi prophesying the New Testament story recounted by Luke. It translates as ‘And the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his Temple.’
'The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple' is a half-size replica of the painting (now in Birmingham City Art Gallery) that Hunt began work on during his first visit to Palestine in 1854-5, an expedition that also produced both versions of The Scapegoat (at the Lady Lever and Manchester City Art Galleries).
The distant landscape on the right of the picture is a view of the Mount of Olives to the north-east of Jerusalem, sketched by the artist from the dome of the As Sakreh mosque just before his departure. The figures of Joseph and most of the elders and Rabbis were drawn from native models. Mary and Jesus, however, were painted back in London from Mrs Frederic Mocatta and a pupil from a Jewish school respectively.
The temple interior was also painted in London, based on the Alhambra Court in the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. Finished in 1860 and sold, along with copyright, to the dealer Ernest Gambart for £5,500, it was first exhibited the following year. Gambart published an engraving of the picture, for which Hunt compiled an elaborate explanatory key plate in which the significance of 29 particular details were elucidated. We learn, for instance, that the fifth rabbi from the left wears, strapped to his forehead, a Phylactery: sacred texts written on four sheets of parchment, tightly folded and enclosed in a case made of calf-skin and painted black.
We learn that the masons in the Gentile's Court outside are still working on the renovations of the Temple begun in 16 B.C. by Herod the Great and that the block of stone is intended to represent the 'head stone of the corner' referring, like the inscription on the door, to the coming of Christ. We learn, that a 'leather girdle is loosened by a strap and buckle on resting from a journey, tightened as preparation for exertion of any kind' and that, having declared that he 'must be about [his] Father's business', the 12-year-old Jesus is seen to tighten his.
The Manchester Guardian marvelled at Hunt’s scholarship and skill: ‘No picture of such extraordinary elaboration has been seen in our day… Draperies, architecture, heads and hands, are wrought to a point of complete imitative finish… this picture is replete with meaning, from the foreground to the remotest distance… There are symbols everywhere, from the stray ear of corn, the nearest of the foreground which indicates the feast of the first fruits, to the money changer and the man who sells animals for the sacrifice, in the extreme distance. Nay the symbols have overflowed the picture, and expanded themselves all over the frame.’
The frame, designed by Hunt to reinforce the meaning of the picture, incorporates a cross-staff and brazen serpent, representing the Old Testament law of Moses, opposite a cross and thorns representing the Christian law of the New Testament. The heartsease at the bottom of the frame are flowers symbolising peace while daisies signify eternity, devotion, and universality.
It was in 1861, while the picture was withdrawn from exhibition, so that it could be copied for the engraving, that Hunt took the opportunity of beginning work on the reduced copy, or as he described it, the ‘original study.’ This version was probably finished in 1865. There are two minor differences between it and the larger picture: one fewer column in the temple and the omission of a man lighting a lamp in the left background. The changes were probably made in order to avoid violating Gambart’s copyright.