The finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple is something of an odd subject for an artist, but I was struck by Bernardino Luini’s treatment of the subject which is to be found in Room 66 of the National Gallery. Luini is not a particularly well-known artist, though his name has had a lot more currency of late. He belonged to the circle of Leonardo, and Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi, which recently sold for a stupendous sum, has been attributed to him in the past. That said, Christ among the Doctors, as it is entitled, is a compelling painting, and just right for this time of year.
Luini’s Christ is supposed to be 12 years old, according to the story, though he looks older to us. He has the beginnings of a beard, which tells us that he is at the threshold of manhood. Given that Luini used the same model for his picture of Saint Catherine this representation of Jesus might seem androgynous, but perhaps is better understood as portraying extreme youth, something that the painters of the Renaissance usually found rather challenging. (Most of their children simply look like miniature adults; the same is true for babies.)
The four doctors who surround Christ are varying examples of maturity and age. Their costumes give the artist a chance to show off his mastery of colour and his ability to paint heads in various attitudes. This picture is almost an advertisement for the way Luini can paint the human head; and yet the doctors, with their finely caught hand gestures are serving as background to Christ, who unlike them, is not looking to right of left, but straight at us, the viewer.
If this is a picture of anything at all, it is a picture of a stare, the level view that Christ gives us. We are looking at him, the doctors are looking at each other, but he is looking at us. It is somewhat disturbing, and it is meant to be. The doctors are presumably discussing the law, and they have books to hand, to act as useful references to the law. But Christ, He who is the Law, needs no books, is not here to discuss anything, rather He is one who teaches with authority, His extreme youth contrasted to the maturity of the doctors, His authority contrasted to their fondness for debate and discussion. Luini’s Christ is one who radiates the Divine presence, and this picture is an attempt (quite a successful one) to show us the reality of the Incarnation. Jesus is not simply another teacher, like the doctors, He is the Son of God, and this is seen in his effortless authority.
The painting is supposed to recall the passage in St Luke where the adolescent Jesus is found among the doctors by Mary and Joseph, but they are absent, as are any architectural elements. Instead we are left with the plain Christ, and confronted with Him we have to decide whether we too believe in Him as did those who first heard Him. “The people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes,” says St Mark (1:22).
This picture refutes all those who claim that Jesus was simply another teacher who did not claim to be the Son of God. To look at Him in this picture is to see that this cannot possibly be so. He is God Incarnate. That makes Bernardino Luini’s work a perfect picture for Christmas.