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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Art and Jesus--His Childhood

Ognissanti Madonna, 1310,
Madonna Enthroned, 1426
Following His birth and circumcision, the Bible tells us little about Christ's childhood. But that hasn't stopped artists from "fleshing out" the period of time when Jesus was growing up. For the earliest images we again find the medieval artist, Giotto, and his student, Masaccio depicting Christ's mother seated on a throne holding the baby Jesus in her lap. Both pieces, though separated by more than a hundred years, are iconographic altarpieces, rather than narrative depictions of Jesus' childhood.  They are more valuable as stylistic milestones than in providing any insight into how artists viewed Jesus, the boy. Giotto's Madonna is Medieval, Masaccio's is indicative of the Early Italian Renaissance.
Madonna and Child with Saints (detail, lower half), 1472, Piero della Francesco
Madonna and Child, 1452, Fra Filippo Lippi
As time progressed, later artists such as Piero della Francesco (above) loosened up this format somewhat to depict, the mother of Christ, still enthroned, but entertaining guest saints (and the donor, lower right). This informality eventually became somewhat chaotic as painted by Fra Filippo Lippi in his Madonna and Child (left) tondo from 1452. An earlier version from 1440 (below, right) is more subdued. Michelangelo visualized a rather rambunctious Jesus being handed off to Joseph in his Doni Tondo (below left).
Madonna and Child, 1440
Fra Filippo Lippi
The Doni Tondo, Michelangelo
Madonna of the Chair,
1518, Raphael
Madonna di Loreto, 1508-09, Raphael

No artist was more responsible for chronicling Jesus' "toddler years" than the great Renaissance master, Raphael di Sanzio. His "baby pictures" of Christ and his mother number upwards to 40 and range from the syrupy sweet Madonna of the Chair (above, left), to the poignant. His Madonna di Loreto (above, right) from 1508-09 in depicting a playful Jesus, is even what we might call "cute." Raphael appears to have preferred Jesus at about a year old.

St Luke Drawing a Portrait of the Virgin, 1440, Rogier van der Weyden

A Light to the Gentiles, 1999, Greg Olsen
The northern Renaissance artist, Rogier van der Weyden, with his painting St. Luke Drawing a Portrait of the Virgin (above) from 1440, goes so far as to depict the highly unlikely scene of Mary making a visit to her pediatric physician, the New Testament writer, Luke…who takes the opportunity to draw their picture (in place of x-rays, perhaps). Greg Olsen's A Light to the Gentiles (left), dating from 1999, depicting Simon the Elder with the holy family in the Temple, is a modern illustration straight from the scriptures.
The Holy Family with the Little Bird, 1650, Bartolome Murillo
The Child Jesus,
Bartolome Murillo
The Spanish artist, Bartolomeo Murillo, on the other hand, suggests Jesus may have played with a pet puppy as a child and a bird. Murillo took some liberties with first-century wearing apparel. He's also one of the few artists to depict the child Jesus in a more spiritual light. Taking his work as a whole, Murillo may have chronicled in paint the most complete depiction of the life of Jesus as any other single artist.

Joseph, 1620, Gerrit van Honthorst
Christ in the House of His parents, 1849 John Everett Millais,
Other artist have taken it upon themselves to explore Christ's day-to-day growing up, helping his step-father in the carpenter shop. As early at 1620,  Gerrit van Honthorst, in his painting titled Joseph (above, right), pays tribute to the one figure in Christs life so often slighted by artists. John Everett Millais presents a something of a "Sunday School" narrative illustration Christ's growing up.

The Finding of the Savior in the Temple, 1860, William Holman Hunt
Eventually they all arrive at the one incident from Jesus' childhood well documented in the Gospels, Jesus' Passover visit to Jerusalem and his lingering in the temple. William Holman Hunt's The Finding of the Savior in the Temple (above) is so minutely realistic, the overall message seems lost in the multiplicity of details. Yet one detail seems false. Despite Jesus being seen as a king in the 19th century England, it's unlikely the boy Jesus would have worn purple, a color reserved for royalty during his time.

The Boy Christ in the Temple, 1881, Heinrich Hofmann

Jesus Found in the Temple, 1886-94,
James Tissot
The most familiar version of Jesus' lingering in the temple is by Heinrich Hofmann, The Boy Christ in the Temple (above) from 1881. It's the image I knew in growing up. James Tissot in his painting, Jesus Found in the Temple (right), from 1886-94, chose to show us the aftermath once Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are reunited. Joseph seems somewhat perplexed. The title might well be, "What's a parent to do?"


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