Images of this type render the story in Luke 2:41-49 (at right). They usually position the boy Jesus in a raised area above the center of the image, with the "doctors" or scripture scholars ranged around him.
In many images Jesus and the scholars are holding or examining books of scripture (example). This reflects the assumption in medieval commentaries that what astonished the scholars was the boy's introducing them to "the design of the Paternal Mercy for the salvation of men in the Sacred Writings," as Ælred of Rievaulx put it. That is, the boy presents himself to the scholars as the fulfillment of the scriptures.1 This would make the episode parallel to the one later in Luke where the adult Jesus begins his ministry by reading Isaiah's "The Spirit of the Lord…hath sent me to proclaim release to the captives" and then saying, "To-day hath this scripture been fulfilled in your ears" (4:16-22).
Some of the images extend Jesus' claim to be the fulfillment of the scriptures by having him expound the doctrine of the Trinity. In these he points to his fingers in the same way theologians do in images of their explaining this doctrine: see this example of Jesus pointing to his fingers and compare how St. Augustine does the same in this image.
Other works emphasize the boldness and novelty of the boy's claim through the amazement or even hostility of the scholars, taking a cue from St. Ambrose's characterizing of the episode as a "disputation."2 This was characteristic of many images of the 16th through the 18th centuries. Tintoretto's Christ Among the Doctors is among the earliest examples, and perhaps the best at expressing the upheaval that is taking place in human history.
After the 18th century the images restore the serenity of the 15th century and earlier. They also return to a feature that is seen in many medieval works, the inclusion of Mary and Joseph. In the medieval tradition the parents enter the frame from the left, as in Giotto's version from 1303-1305. Modern works may have them anywhere in the composition.
The locale is pictured sometimes as a structure that could be the Temple or as a church. In the latter case, the boy is sometimes placed in the apse or under the ciborium A canopy over an altar in a church, standing on four pillars — Google Definitions making the point that this child is indeed the Christ who will undertake the sacrifice of the Cross that is memorialized in the sacred liturgy (example).
The doctors are usually presented as old men. This could simply reflect a stereotype about scholars, but it may also reflect St. Paul's repeated use of "the old man" as a metaphor for the person one was before conversion: "the old man, who is corrupted according to the desire of error" (Ephesians 4:22, c.f. Colossians 3:9). This is not to dismiss the doctors in the episode but to make them signs of hope for salvation, for "our old man is crucified with him [Christ], that the body of sin may be destroyed, to the end that we may serve sin no longer" (Romans 6:6).
Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2015-12-29, 2016-12-12, 2017-02-04.
Christ Among the Doctors, 17th century. Follow this link for the description page.
Luke 2:41-49: And his parents went every year to Jerusalem, at the solemn day of the pasch, 42And when he was twelve years old, they going up into Jerusalem, according to the custom of the feast, 43And having fulfilled the days, when they returned, the child Jesus remained in Jerusalem; and his parents knew it not. 44And thinking that he was in the company, they came a day's journey, and sought him among their kinsfolks and acquaintance. 45And not finding him, they returned into Jerusalem, seeking him. 46And it came to pass, that, after three days, they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, hearing them, and asking them questions. 47And all that heard him were astonished at his wisdom and his answers. 48And seeing him, they wondered. And his mother said to him: Son, why hast thou done so to us? behold thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. 49And he said to them: How is it that you sought me? did you not know, that I must be about my father's business?