Carl Bloch’s Jesus is Found in the Temple depicts the very moment Mary and Joseph lay eyes on their son after searching Jerusalem for three days after the flurry of Passover activities. Aspects of this moment might resonate with parents who have lost their child in a crowd, only to find him or her in the last place they thought to look. For Mary and Joseph, however, discovering Jesus in the Temple courts, conversing with the teachers of the law, was particularly unexpected.
The text describes Mary and Joseph’s reaction at finding their son with one word, ‘astonished’ (Luke 2:48; ekplēsso). Within this context, the word could connote a variety of heightened, perhaps even conflicting, emotions and responses—responses which Bloch keeps mostly hidden in his painting. He depicts Mary and Joseph with their backs to the viewer, inviting us to imaginatively ‘complete’ the expressions on their faces.
Such invitation is hardly surprising. This scene was one of twenty-three meditative paintings of the life of Christ that Bloch created between 1865 and 1879 for the king’s oratory in Frederiksborg Castle, Denmark. To encourage meditative reflection, Bloch included seemingly random children in these paintings, likely modelled after his own children, often peering out at the viewer or directing the viewer’s gaze to specific elements in the scene (Pheysey & Holzapfel 2010: 73).
Jesus is Found in the Temple is an outstanding example of this iconographic trope. The most conspicuous figure in the painting is the young boy sitting on a lower step of the Temple, holding a string attached to the caged dove, his sacrificial-offering-in-waiting. He looks curiously, perhaps even in a startled way, at the couple. We might use this boy’s reaction to guide our own reflections as we meditate on the possible thoughts and emotions Mary and Joseph were experiencing in this moment of discovery.