Christ returning from the temple with his parents is the final in a series of six prints from 1654, all in a similar format, depicting the subject of Christ's childhood and youth. Over the course of its history the scene has been variously interpreted as the Holy Family's flight to, or return from Egypt. It was only in the early 18th century that it was first identified as relating to an episode in Saint Luke's gospel in which the twelve year-old Jesus, having gone missing in Jerusalem during the feast of the Passover, is discovered by his parents sitting among the rabbis in the temple. Luke describes the scene as follows: 'Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parent's saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you”. “Why have you been searching for me?” he asked. “Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them. Then he went down to Nazareth and was obedient to them'. (Luke 2, v. 47-51)
Rembrandt's etching depicts the Holy Family as they return home to Nazareth after this episode, with the boy Jesus flanked by his parents each holding one of his hands, accompanied by a small dog. It is a common scene of family life, a child suspected of truancy being firmly escorted by his parents while plaintively pleading his innocence. In the background is a sunlit vista full of bucolic charm, with shepherds watering their flocks at a small river, and a bridge and city nestled in the foothills of a craggy landscape. The lengthening shadows, created with generously applied drypoint, wonderfully evokes the late afternoon as the family sets out on their long journey.
This is a rare print – only 12 impressions have been offered at auction within the last thirty years – and this outstanding example, in exceptionally good condition, comes from the ancient print collection of the Princes of Waldburg-Wolfegg. This venerable cabinet was founded by the Truchsess Maximilian Willibald (1604-1667), who was a contemporary of Rembrandt’s, and it may well be that this print passed almost directly from the artist into his collection, where it would have remained for the next four hundred years.
The present impression compares well to both Cracherode impressions, one of which is on Japan paper, in the British Museum.