Christ among the Doctors (1506) was executed by Albrecht Dürer during his second trip to Italy. The panel depicts an episode from the life of Christ - at age twelve, young Jesus goes along with Joseph and Mary on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Jesus lingers at the temple and is later found in discussion with the elders of the temple. The painting contains a Latin inscription, located on a page slip in the book held by the elder on the left: Opus quinque dierum, meaning “work executed in five days”. Scholars agree that this refers to the swift execution of the painting, which has a base of tempera and a thin coat of oil paint.
Christ among the Doctors is not only distinct in the context of Dürer’s work, but also generally it resembles few other paintings from the period. The artist conceives an overcrowded and dense composition, dominated by a pattern of hands, heads and books. This density and lack of space is reminiscent of the late work of Hieronymus Bosch and his followers, in paintings such as: Christ Crowned with Thorns (ca. 1510),Christ Carrying the Cross (ca. 1510) and Christ before Pontius Pilate (ca. 1520). The painting is also relatively flat, which, given Dürer’s interest and knowledge of the art of perspective, should be understood as an intentional artistic choice. This is evident when comparing the painting to Dürer’s earlier depictions of the theme, in one of the panels of The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin (1494-1497), and in the woodcut from the series Life of the Virgin (1503). In both instances, the artist depicts the figures in full within a spacious interior.
In Christ among the Doctors, Dürer successfully combines elements of Italian and Northern European painting. The composition was likely inspired by the Venetian type half-length picture. For example, Dürer’s painting is similar in arrangement to Christ among the Doctor’s (1504) by Italian Renaissance painter Cima da Conegliano. However, the solemn and quiet mood of Cima’s painting is very different from the tense and dynamic atmosphere created by Dürer. Dürer builds a dramatic conflict by contrasting the youth and beauty of Christ with the ugliness and old age of the Jewish rabbis. The grotesque heads of the Jewish rabbis draw from the tradition of northern grotesque iconography. Here once again, Bosch is an important influence. In paintings such as the abovementioned Christ Crowned with Thorns, Christ’s enemies are modeled in a similar style. In addition, many have cited Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings of grotesque heads as a possible influence.
In the painting, Dürer used variation to express ugliness and deformity, in order to introduce different symbols of evil. The two faces on the left fall under the category Durer called ‘Bäurisch Gestalt’, which referred to brutish, peasant-like figures. The left upper figure’s eyes are covered by a hat, symbolizing the blindness of the Synagogue. The bearded figure in the forefront represents ugliness through the emphasis on old age. The central figure that touches Jesus introduces another type of ugliness, which is expressed through the abnormality of his features. Finally, the two figures in the background embody the idea of the ‘evil eye’, a type of evil that seems to possess a demonic power.
Christ among the Doctors is an oil painting by Albrecht Dürer, dating to 1506, now in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain. The work dates to Dürer's sojourn in Venice, and was executed (according to the inscription Opus Quinque Dierum, meaning "Made in five days") hastily while he was working at the Feast of the Rosary altarpiece.
According to some sources, it could have been given to painter Giovanni Bellini. In the latter's house it was perhaps seen by Lorenzo Lotto, who used one of the figures in the painting for his Madonna with Child between Sts. Flavian and Onuphrius now in the Borghese Gallery. The subject had been already treated by Dürer in a woodcut of the Life of the Virgin series and in a panel of the Seven Sorrows Polyptych. However, in the Venetian work the German artist adopted a totally new composition, with the characters occupying the whole scene and surrounding the young Jesus, leaving a little room for the black background.
The topic is the Finding in the Temple episode from Jesus' childhood, found in the Gospel of Luke. The character at the left of Jesus is a true caricature, perhaps inspired by one of Leonardo da Vinci's drawings seen by Dürer. The man in the lower right corner has a cartouche on his beret, a custom of the Pharisees. The one on the opposite side is perhaps a citation of Bellini.
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