Jesus among the Doctors; Master of the Catholic Kings; 1495-97; oil on panel; National Gallery of Art, Washington

Web Gallery of Art

Jesus among the doctors

Unerstand the scene

A child or an adolescent in front of old men.

Jesus is twelve and, depending on the artists, he is represented as a young adult or a big child. Sitting in an armchair, he dominates the doctors as the medieval master did in his “cathedra” over his students or he is sitting among them, and even, overcome by their number or their sizes. The scene takes place in a closed space but the Temple is hardly visible.

The oppositions are put forward: Jesus standing and the doctors sitting; Jesus serene with his hand raised in an orator’s gesture against doctors making confused gestures; youth against old age… Jesus sometimes holds a codex, that is to say a bound book, whereas the Jewish doctors have scrolls; the codex is to be viewed as a sign of modernity as opposed to the traditional scroll.

The doctors of the Law are old men; they are portrayed as ordinary learned men or as grimacing Jews, or even, in the 19th century, as typical Orientals.

Be careful, if they count on their fingers, it is only to count their arguments according to a medieval tradition.

The scene goes beyond the text and illustrates the motif of the schoolboy giving lessons to his masters.

Mary and Joseph are absent or they get into the scene from the background or from one of the sides. Often considered as secondary characters, they can nevertheless draw Jesus’ attention, and even scold him.

The biblical narrative

The Gospel according to Luke, chapter 2.

Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover.
And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast.

Jesus stayed behind in the Temple but his parents, thinking he was in the caravan, did not look for him at once, then they worried about him and returned to Jerusalem.

And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions.
And all those who heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.
And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said to him : "Son, why have you done this to us? Look, your father and I have sought you anxiously."

And he said to them, "Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business? 

And they did not understand the statement which he spoke to them. (Luke 2:41-50)


The text shows that Jesus is a young man more intelligent than learned; the scene announces the future debates with the Pharisees. But, on the other hand, it emphasizes his vocation as a prophet and as Son of God, which is impossible to render in a painting.

See similar pictures


A composition centred on Jesus who is traditionally sitting in a high chair, the bishop’s cathedra.


A Debate in the Temple; Simon BENING; 1525-30; tempera and gold on parchment from the Book of Prayers of Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Paul Getty trust



Christ among the Doctors; GIOTTO di Bondone; 1305, fresco; Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

Web Gallery of Art


This time, no more cathedra; the stress is laid here on the dispute between equals but also on the opposition between the young man’s knowledge against the old men.  

Christ disputing with the Doctors; Gregorio PRETI; 1660; oil on canvas; National Gallery, London

National Gallery London



Christ disputing with the Doctors; Gregorio PRETI; 1660; oil on canvas; National Gallery, London

CGFA - A Virtual Art Museum


Jesus recovers his authority and dominates his masters from every point of view. Veronese’s column makes one think of that of the Passion, a sort of revenge by the doctors of the Law.  

Jesus among the Doctors; Frans FRANCKEN; 1587; oil on wood; De Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal, Antwerp, Belgium

Web Gallery of Art



Jesus among the Doctors in the Temple; Paolo VERONESE; 1558; oil on canvas; Museo del Prado, Madrid

Web Gallery of Art


The arrival of Mary and Joseph is often discreet; here the emphasis is put on the reunion of the family.


The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple; William Holman HUNT; 1854-60; oil on canvas; City Art Gallery, Birmingham

Olga's Gallery - Online Art Museum






Further developpements


The passage from childhood to adulthood

has often been ritualized by gestures and words.

At their Barmizah, young Jews read a passage from the Bible in Hebrew. Christianity has instituted ceremonies of renewal of the promises of Baptism, which still exist and take place at about the age of 12, but vary according to countries and confessions.


For Protestants and some Catholics (in Italy for instance) it is the confirmation; for the Catholics in France it is the profession of faith (formerly called the solemn communion). Some social rites used to be added in the old days: adult clothes, first cigarette… they showed the passage of the individual to a certain “majority”.



At what age is this majority ?


There have always been several ones. If the kings of France came of age at 13, the majority required to be married without the parents’ consent was very late and could be as late as 25 years old. It was rather at the age when the youth entered the world of work that marked the end of childhood socially.


Nowadays the passage lasts over a rather long period; it is adolescence that begins early and ends late and if the legal majority is fixed at 18, youth sometimes still goes on for a very long time.



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