The subject of the painting is Christ Disputing in the Temple, the only event from Christ’s childhood mentioned in the Gospels. The theme of religious debate offered a painter ample opportunity to portray a variety of puzzled and agitated facial expressions. Paris Bordone underscored the theme of Christianity’s imminent triumph by making the brightly lit Christ Child the calm center of a composition of muscular figures in restless poses. Books and scrolls in simulated Hebrew lettering and a bell at the lower right lie in disarray. Punctuating this confusion is the very human expression of Christ’s frantic parents who enter at the upper left; you can almost hear Mary whine, “We’ve been looking all over for you!”
A cautious painter who tended to react to developments in Venetian painting rather than initiate them, Paris Bordone trained under Titian and emulated Titian’s style of the 1510s and 1520s – albeit in a more timid mode – for his entire career. This painting (which has been variously dated between the mid-1530s and 1545) seems indebted to a picture of the same subject by the young Tintoretto (Museo del Duomo, Milan), which must date from the early 1540s. Bordone’s painting is typically Venetian in its layering of impasto to create a surface resonant with rich coloring, particularly in the costumes, whose folds have squirmy lives of their own. Characteristically Venetian as well is the way Paris improvised during the process of painting: major changes include shifting Christ from left of the central door to the right, altering the shape of the throne, and adding the decorated step in the foreground.
That Mrs. Gardner didn’t always collect “names” confirms her status as a collector. Buying a picture by Paris Bordone would not have furthered her social position, nor the reputation of her collection. Rather, she selected this masterpiece by a second-tier artist in order to provide context for paintings by more famous artists, especially Titian’s Europa, and also for its intrinsic beauty and drama.Gardner bought the picture from J. P. Richter, a noted scholar of Leonardo da Vinci, who also had a reputation as a dodgy dealer.Yet Richter certainly had an eye for quality; he sold Mrs. Gardner her painting by Giotto.
Source: Frederick Ilchman, "Christ Disputing in the Temple," in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 109.