Bring more books

A relief sculpture from 1531 in the cathedral in Ávila, home of the redoubtable Saint Teresa. The theme is the twelve-year-old Jesus disputing with learned Jews in the Temple (Luke 2:46).


It’s good if not great work. (Sorry for the mediocre photo). The Jesus is unconvincing, but then the challenge of representing a rebellious know-all adolescent Jewish Son of God would defeat greater artists. What Lucas Giraldo and Juan Rodríguez got right, unusually, is the energy of the disputation, with the learned frantically looking up texts and a boy attendant bringing fresh ammunition. This isn’t a sedate lecture but a proper academic cat-fight. Easy trivia question – answer below the jump: what is the anachronism?

The anachronism is the books. The edge-bound book as we know it, the codex, was invented in the second century. Before that, Jewish and Greek scholars alike used scrolls, and so did Jesus. The Christians were early adopters of the technology and may have been its inventors (Jack Miles, God: A Biography). It gave them a technical advantage in the three-cornered polemics they were constantly engaged in; when arguments were won and lost by citing texts, codices gave faster access to the smackdown. Learned pagans and Jews were handicapped by their attachment to the prestigious but inefficient scroll. The Christians were outsiders with no prestige to lose. The later invention of verse numbering by Calvinist printers in Geneva in the 1550s gave a similar polemical advantage to Protestants against Catholics.

The sculpture is also an act of some courage. The sequence – the scene is flanked by a good but conventional Presentation in the Temple – is impeccably orthodox in subject, but displays obvious sympathy with Judaism. The Spanish Inquisition was at the height of its power, and managed even to imprison the Primate of Spain, Archbishop Carranza, for 18 years: poetic justice, as he had been one of the prime movers of the Marian persecutions of Protestants in England. The Inquisition was professionally and virulently antisemitic, though its prime target was not Jews themselves (expelled from Spain in 1492) but conversos, the far more numerous Catholic descendants of Jews forcibly converted in pogroms round 1400 CE. The outlet for the antisemitism was charges against conversos of an imaginary “judaizing” heresy. Even protected by powerful patrons like the bishop and canons of Ávila, mere sculptors were soft targets.


  1. dave schutz says


    I’m not at all sure I’m right here, but wasn’t the ‘Jew’ headwear adopted well after Jesus’ time?

    • JamesWimberley says


      More than likely. The first artist I know of who tried for historically plausible clothing in scenes of antiquity (such as here – it may be wrong, but it's not contemporary gear at all) was Nicolas Poussin, who died in1665. Any earlier offers welcome.