Jesus as the Center of Attention and Curiosity of the Doctors

James Tissot

The recent exhibition dedicated to James Tissot at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (23 June – 13 September 2020) fills just a single hall with artist’s creations devoted to biblical subjects. In contrast to many paintings kept in Europe, it is the Brooklyn Museum which acquired nearly all of the numerous watercolors painted on religious themes and subjects (365 in total) which Tissot began to paint upon returning to France following the death of his wife and after having received a revelation at the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, thereafter having widely read on the subjects and carried out various trips to the Holy Land beginning in 1886, observing the places and customs of the populations of the biblical lands.

Many of these paintings daringly innovate in their treatment of traditional subjects. Such is the case of Jesus Among the Doctors, an episode reported by Luke the Evangelist (Lk 2, 41-52). At the age of 12 years, Jesus went with his parents to Jerusalem for the annual pilgrimage to the Temple. While returning to Nazareth, Mary and Joseph lost sight of him and, after three days of harrowed searching, they found him alone in Jerusalem seated among doctors entranced by the significance of his words. This topic was frequently treated in Christian art starting in the second half of the Middle Ages. Often, the scene takes place before a majestic backdrop and Jesus is in the position of honor, set in the center of the painting, often on an elevated seat, from which he teaches with an authority absolutely uncharacteristic for his age. In Tissot’s painting (22.7 x 16.7 cm), painted between 1886 and 1894 and held by the Brooklyn Museum, everything is the opposite. The scene unfolds in a constricted space, and Jesus must be sought in order to be found because it is as if he were swallowed up by a compact group of at least twenty doctors all standing, despite their venerable age (the cushioned seat in the foreground to the left is empty), and so they are presumably bombarding him with questions and are fascinated by his wisdom and his ability to respond. Tissot could have immortalized the moment of reunification with his parents, as the figure standing seen from behind to the right is that of a woman who a man, Joseph, follows or whose hand he holds.
François Bœspflug