F.G. Stephens, associate, friend and original member of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, describes in some depth the figures in The Finding of the Saviour and gives us a fascinating illumination into the reception of biblical imagery in the nineteenth century.
‘Nearest of the Rabbis is seated an old priest, the chief, who, blind, imbecile, and decrepit,’ clutches the Torah to himself ‘strenuously yet feebly; his sight is gone, his hands seem palsied . . . He is the type of obstinate adherence to the old and effete doctrine and pertinacious refusal of the new.’ Thus, he not only is the representative symbol of those Pharisees who refused to believe in Christ — in the Messiah for whom they had been waiting — but he also prefigures all men who resist Christianity. ‘Blind, imbecile, he cares not to examine the bearer of glad tidings, but clings to the superseded dispensation,” and his attitude is echoed by the second Rabbi, ‘a good-natured, worldly individual, with a feminine face, who, holding the phylactery-box, that contained the promises of the Jewish dispensation in one hand, touches with the other that of the blind man, as though to . . . express a mutual satisfaction in their sufficiency, whatever may come of this new thing Christ in conversation has suggested’. Whereas the older man represents what the painter took to be an exhausted, feeble tradition and is himself psychologically incapable of entertaining any new ideas, this good-natured man will not allow himself to be troubled by any venturesome thought. He is a good member of the Establishment of any age and place, and although he chiefly explains the nature of those who opposed Christ in his own time, for Hunt he is also analogous to many an Anglican clergyman as well. Their neighbour, a man ‘eager, unsatisfied, passionate, argumentative,’ represents a far different kind of person, for ‘his strong antagonism of mind will allow no such comfortable rest as the elders enjoy’. He has been arguing with Christ when the entrance of Mary and Joseph interrupts the debate. In contrast, the fourth Rabbi, a haughty, self-centred man ‘assumes the judge, and would decide between the old and new. He is a Pharisee of the most stiff order. Beyond even the custom of the chief Rabbis and ordinary practice of his sect, he retains the unusually broad phylactery bound about his head.’ Between these last two figures appears one of the musicians, who ‘seems to mock the words of Christ upon some argument that has gone before, and, with one hand clenched and supine, protrudes a scornful finger, hugging himself in self-conceit. He is a Levite, a time-serving, fawning fellow … who would ingratiate himself with his seated superiors.’ The fifth Rabbi ‘has a bi-forked beard, like that of a goat, reaching to his waist,’ and this ‘good-natured, temporizing’ fellow makes himself comfortable upon his divan ‘and would willingly let every one else be as much at ease’. Again employing the principle of contrast, Hunt has made the sixth Rabbi ‘an envious, acrid individual, a lean man’ who has arrived late at the Temple and stretches forward to see the face of the Virgin. The seventh and last of the Rabbis is a ‘mere human lump of dough . . . a huge sensual stomach of a man, who squats upon his own broad base, and indolently lifts his hand in complacent surprise at the interruption’.
Via George P. Landow.
See https://theframeblog.wordpress.com/tag/holman-hunt/ for further information on Holman Hunt’s frames.