This is Millais's first important religious subject, showing a scene from the boyhood of Christ. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850 it was given no title, but accompanied by a biblical quotation: 'And one shall say unto him, What are those wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.' (Zech. 13:6)
Christian symbolism figures prominently in the picture. The carpenter's triangle on the wall, above Christ's head, symbolises the Holy Trinity. The wood and nails prefigure the crucifixion, as does the blood on the young Christ's hand, which he has cut on a nail, and which drips onto his foot. The young St John is shown fetching a bowl of water with which to bathe the wound. This clearly identifies him as the Baptist, and the image is extended by the white dove perched on the ladder, symbol of the Holy Spirit, which descended from Heaven at the baptism of Christ.
Following the Pre-Raphaelite credo of truth to nature, Millais painted the scene in meticulous detail and based the setting on a real carpenter's shop in Oxford Street. The sheep in the background, intended to represent the Christian flock, were drawn from two sheep's heads obtained from a local butcher. He avoided using professional models, and relied instead on friends and family. Joseph's head was a portrait of Millais's own father, but the body was based on a real carpenter, with his rough hands, sinewy arms and prominent veins. The Virgin Mary was his sister-in-law Mary Hodgkinson, who also appears in Millais's Isabella (1848-9, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool); John the Baptist was posed by a young adopted cousin, Edwin Everett; and Nöel Humphreys, the son of an artist friend, sat for the young Christ.
The public reaction to the picture was one of horror and Millais was viciously attacked by the press. The Times described the painting as 'revolting' and objected to the way in which the artist had dared to depict the Holy Family as ordinary, lowly people in a humble carpenter's shop 'with no conceivable omission of misery, of dirt, of even disease, all finished with the same loathsome minuteness'. Charles Dickens was one of the most vehement critics, describing the young Christ as 'a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed gown' (Household Words, 15 June 1850).
Leslie Parris (ed.), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994, pp.77-79, reproduced p.79, in colour.
Elizabeth Prettjohn, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, London 2000, pp.189-91, reproduced pp.46-7, in colour.
Malcolm Warner, The Victorians - British Painting 1837-1901, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1997, pp.65-66, reproduced pl.17, in colour.