Christ in the House of His Parents

Christ in the House of His Parents
Artist John Everett Millais
Year 1849–50
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 86.4 cm × 139.7 cm (34.0 in × 55.0 in)
Location Tate Britain, London

Christ in the House of His Parents (1849–50) is a painting by John Everett Millais depicting the Holy Family in Saint Joseph's carpentry workshop. The painting was extremely controversial when first exhibited, prompting many negative reviews, most notably one written by Charles Dickens. It catapulted the previously obscure Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to notoriety and was a major contributor to the debate about Realism in the arts.

It is currently housed in the Tate Britain in London.


The painting depicts the young Jesus assisting Joseph in his workshop. Joseph is making a door, which is laid on his carpentry work-table. Jesus has cut his hand on an exposed nail, leading to a sign of the stigmata, prefiguring the crucifixion. As Saint Anne removes the nail with a pair of pincers, his concerned mother Mary offers her cheek for a kiss while Joseph examines his wounded hand. The young John the Baptist brings in water to wash the wound, prefiguring his later baptism of Christ. An assistant of Joseph's, representing potential future Apostles, watches these events. In the background various objects are used to further point up the theological significance of the subject. A ladder, referring to Jacob's Ladder, is visible leaning against the back wall; a dove standing for the Holy Spirit rests on it. Other carpentry implements refer to the Holy Trinity. Millais probably used Albrecht Dürer's print Melancholia I as a source for this imagery, along with quattrocento works. The sheep in the fold in the background represent the future Christian flock.[1]

It has been suggested that Millais was influenced by John Rogers Herbert's painting Our Saviour Subject to His Parents at Nazareth.[2] He may also have drawn on a painting depicting Jesus helping Joseph in his workshop, which at the time was attributed to Annibale Carracci.[3]

Critical response

The painting was immensely controversial when first exhibited because of its realistic depiction of a carpentry workshop, especially the dirt and detritus on the floor. This was in dramatic contrast to the familiar portrayal of Jesus, his family, and his apostles in costumes reminiscent of Roman togas. Charles Dickens accused Millais of portraying Mary as an alcoholic who looks hideous in her ugliness that ... she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England.

Critics also objected to the portrayal of Jesus, one complaining that it was "painful" to see "the youthful Saviour" depicted as "a red-headed Jew boy".[4] Dickens described him as a "wry-necked, blubbering red-headed boy in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke...playing in an adjacent gutter".[5] Other critics suggested that the characters displayed signs of rickets and other disease associated with slum conditions. Because of the controversy, Queen Victoria asked for the painting to be taken to Buckingham Palace so that she could view it in private.[6]

At the Royal Academy the painting was exhibited with a companion piece by Millais's colleague William Holman Hunt that also portrayed a scene from early Christian history in which a family help a wounded individual. This was entitled A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids.


External video
Sir John Everett Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents, Smarthistory[7]

The effect of the critical comments was to make the Pre-Raphaelite movement famous and to create a debate about the relationship between modernity, realism and medievalism in the arts. The critic John Ruskin supported Millais in letter to the press and in his lecture "Pre-Raphaelitism"[8] despite personally disliking the painting. Its use of symbolic realism led to a wider movement in which the choice of composition and theme was combined with detailed observation.[9][10]


  1. George P. Landow, Typology in the Visual Arts, II. Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents
  2. Herbert's painting
  3. Catherine Roach, The Artist in the House of His Patron: Images-within-Images in John Everett Millais's Portraits of the Wyatt Family, Visual Culture in Britain, 1 July, 2008 1, 1 March 2010, pp.67 – 92
  4. "The Royal Academy Exhibition." Builder 1 Jun. 1850, 255–256.
  5. Dickens, Charles. "Old Lamps for New Ones." Household Words 12 (15 Jun. 1850), 12–14.
  6. Tate Gallery, Teacher's pack Archived 20 July 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
  7. "Sir John Everett Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents". Smarthistory at Khan Academy. Retrieved 3 March 2013.
  8. Recreation of Ruskin talk on Pre-Raphaelitism, 1851
  9. "Symbolism". Retrieved 2015. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  10. [The Symbolists' rejection of naturalism and narrative in favor of the subjective representation of an idea or emotion would have a significant effect on the artwork of the twentieth century, ...]
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