Tintoretto, Christ Among the Doctors

1540-41
Oil on canvas, 77.6 x 125.6 in. (197 x 319 cm.)
Museo del Duomo, Milan, Italy

Many precursors of this painting put Jesus at the back of the room, but Tintoretto's innovation is to turn this compositional choice into a trick of perspective, making the eye move uncertainly in toward the boy and out toward the men in the foreground. The uncertainty, the twisting figures, and the "how could this be" gesture of the bearded man on the left express the disruption that Jesus' claims bring to the old world. According to Nichols (31-32), the past is even challenged in the undisguised brushwork and the "expressive urgency alien to the cool formalism of contemporary Mannerist painting."

On the left the man with the yellow mantle on his head looks very much like Titian, the Mannerist extraordinaire, turning his back on the beardless youth behind him, who strongly resembles Titian himself (ibid.) and who in turn greatly resembles the Jesus in the chair. The artist thus makes his own well-known alienation from received standards a metaphor for the upheaval he is depicting.

Many other images of this episode have Joseph and Mary entering the frame from the left. Instead, Tintoretto's left foreground is almost completely filled by the figure of a pregnant woman in tattered clothing, calm and tall amid the hubbub. She is clearly not a scholar, nor can she be Mary, who was universally believed to be a lifelong virgin. Rather, her presence and her condition speak to the fecund future that is to follow the turmoil that Jesus has brought into the scene.

More of The Boy Jesus and the Doctors

Source: Stefano Stabile via Wikimedia Commons