The painting depicts a passage from Luke in which Mary and Joseph, having journeyed to Jerusalem for Passover, realize that the young Jesus is not with them: “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting with the teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” Giovanni di Paolo gives his narrative scenes imaginative variation and rich detail. He shows the young Christ grandly enthroned, holding a scroll, and raising a hand in rhetorical argument. The four learned theologians seated below him are each given individual gestures and characterizations. At the left, another elder shows Joseph in as the Virgin Mary hurries up the steps to her son, seeming to interrupt the proceedings
Together with works now in the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, this painting originally formed part of the predella of an altarpiece. The main panel of the altarpiece was probably the Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena), which presents a more elaborate version of the architecture seen here.
Source: Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 47.