“…[His parents] found [the twelve-year-old Jesus] in the temple, sitting among the doctors, listening to them, and asking them questions, and all those who heard him were astounded at his intelligence and his replies.” Luke: 2, 46
A stir in the temple
Jesus is carrying on a debate with the big man in orange at the left. His colleague pushes a book into his belly to urge him to give up his line of argument: the Boy is right.
Veronese was not just a painter: he was a dramatist as well. Here are a dozen men looking surprised and baffled–some of them awed–at what they hear and see. Look at their faces—realistic, believable faces, surely portraits of real men. No wonder Diego Velazquez bought this painting for King Philip when he was in Italy. He knew a good thing when he saw it.
See their body language too. Even those that have their backs turned show agitation and bewilderment. One, clearly stumped, listens with a finger behind his ear. Another, confronted by the problem Jesus has proposed, pushes himself back in his chair to mull it over. The professor behind him, his hand frozen on his breast, realizes that his ready refutation is no good. A tall wise man seems to surrender in respect. A disbelieving scholar searches out the Law in his big book.
The psychologist painter
Few have ever created men in such believable attitudes. Norman Rockwell was the last able American painter who tried this kind of representation…
but, until he began to use photos, his people were often cartoonish, i.e. exaggerated humorously or sentimentally. Veronese’s men do not look like actors, and actors mostly do.
Modern painters do not venture on the invention of complex dramatic scenes like this one. They leave the representation of behavior to movies and TV. Now you can watch the entertaining theatralics of judges, sometimes behaving like puppet-show figures, in America’s (or Britain’s, etc.) Got Talent, for example.
What’s that pillar doing there?
A unique, a memorable, feature of this huge canvas is the column in the middle. Who’d have imagined a scene with a column blocking the view?
Linear perspective, a fine way to show depth in a picture, was discovered in the Renaissance and artists loved to experiment with it. Objects in the picture recede toward the horizon along lines of geometrical precision, and those that are supposed to be farther away from the viewer are drawn smaller and higher up the canvas. Here is one of the extravagances of Veronese’s friend Tintoretto:
Veronese, in a stroke of genius, sticks a column right in our way, frustrating us a little and making us try harder to peer into the great hall. He too plays with the receding perspective lines but he disguises them, and achieves an illusion of depth by defining the men nearest the viewer better than those farther back; by darkening some of the figures that sit between the column and the Boy, as though they were in a shaded region; and by the spacing of the pillars.
Those circling pillars behind the doctors encompass the scene, center it, keep it on stage, as it were. They also establish a middle ground—one behind Jesus but well in front of Mary and Joseph at the far entrance to the temple. Without the device, the background would seem to have little to do with the foreground.
What are they wearing?
Notice the costumes. What artist invents clothes today? In Renaissance times that was part of their job or their freedom. Michelangelo attired all his Prophets in clothes of his own invention, created to highlight their movements and dignity, as well as to embellish them with color. He painted in fresco, with its limited color gama.
Veronese’s vestments are no less original. And, as to color, few painters in all of history could come near him. Oils were his medium. Look at the strange yellow outfit of the doctor nearest us, with its black hood and black piping. What is that pink “skirt” all about? That’s for color. It was never enough for Veronese to make a figure without dressing it in as gorgeous a color as he could imagine.
Magic Squiggles of Paint
There’s one more thing that will make you stand at this painting for longer than the twenty seconds museum visitors ordinarily spend on paintings: Veronese’s way of putting on the color.
His master, the Venetian Titian, had already begun to paint with free strokes of his brush, which was a great novelty—free strokes with brushes that left tracks in the paint. And he left the color just as he had laid it on, without smoothing it over.
The Florentines, meanwhile, kept applying their paint in smooth layers. For instance, there are no brush strokes visible in Raphael’s paintings. The colored areas are flat.
Veronese followed Titian’s lead. He liked the sweeps of his brush to show in the finished work. Ever since his time one of the delights of a viewing a painting is seeing how a mere squiggle of colored oil becomes, when applied skillfully to the canvas, in just the right place, in just the right quantity, a beam of light, a reflection, a shadow, or an object. The highlights on the clothes of these doctors, when seen close-up, remain the blobs or strands of oil paint that Veronese turned so magically into light and shape. Two fragments: