And the Child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom:
and the grace of God was upon him.
Luke ii. 40.
Among the innumerable pictures in which the world’s great religious painters have represented the scenes of the earthly life of our Lord, it is amazing to note the large proportion of subjects relating to his infancy and childhood. What else can this mean than that the hearts of worshippers ever yearn towards that which they can understand and love, and that thus, of all the varied aspects of Christ’s character, it appeals to us most forcibly that He was once a babe in the Bethlehem manger.
To find the earliest delineations of the Christ-child we must go to the Catacombs of Rome, and on the walls of their strange subterranean chapels retrace the fading features of the Divine Babe as painted there centuries ago to cheer the hearts of Christians. Two of these primitive frescos are in the Greek chapel of the Catacomb of S. Praxedes, where they are a constant object of interest to the art pilgrim. Considered æsthetically, they have of course no intrinsic beauty; but to the thoughtful mind they stand for the beginnings of a great art movement which culminated in the canvases of Raphael and Titian.
From the frescos of the Catacombs the next step in the progress of Christian art was to the mosaics ornamenting the basilicas; and here the Christ-child again appears as a conspicuous figure. Some of the most interesting of these mosaics represent the Babe receiving the gifts of the Magi,—as at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and at Saint Apollinare in Ravenna. In others, as at Capua, the Child shares with the enthroned Virgin the adoration of a surrounding group of saints. Still another of peculiar interest is at Santa Maria in Trastevere (Rome), where the Infant is suckled at his mother’s breast.
When we enter that strange period of history known as the Dark Ages, we find the art products few and uninteresting; but even then the Christ-child is not forgotten, and again and again he appears sculptured in marble over the portals of cathedrals, or painted in stiff Byzantine style over their altars.
Thus it was that in the new birth of art in Italy, when Niccolò Pisano in sculpture, and Cimabue in painting, awakened the sleeping world to a love of beauty, the Madonna, with her heaven-born Babe, was the first subject to arouse enthusiasm; and it was for a picture of this sort that all Florence went mad with joy, as it was borne along The Street of Rejoicing.
In early representations, both in mosaics and paintings, the Child is dressed in a tunic, white, red, or blue, often very richly ornamented with gold embroidery. This method obtained as late as the fourteenth century, when Fra Angelico still painted the Babe in the elaborate royal garments of a king. But art at last returned to nature, and from the fifteenth century the Holy Child was painted partially and sometimes wholly undraped, with beautiful rounded limbs and soft pink baby flesh.
It was then that Italy was transformed into a paradise of art, and all the important cities were full of great painters whose hearts were aglow with the sacred fire of genius. In the host of beautiful works which were produced in the next three centuries, every type of treatment was exemplified, varying from the most simple naturalism to the loftiest idealism. The naïve realism of Filippino Lippi’s chubby baby, placidly sucking his thumb as he looks out of the picture, is matched in the frolicsome boys of Andrea del Sarto’s many paintings, smiling mischievously from the Madonna’s arms. At the other extreme is the strangely precocious looking child of Botticelli, raising his eyes heavenward, with a mystic smile on his serious face.
And when it would seem that every conceivable type of infancy, and every imaginable situation had already been realized on the canvas, Raphael arose to create an entirely new ideal. His life was so short, his work so surpassingly brilliant, that it was as if a splendid meteor suddenly flashed across the starry firmament of the Cinque-Cento. Perugino, his master; Pinturicchio, his employer; Fra Bartolommeo, his friend; Andrea del Sarto, “the faultless painter,” all paled before his rapidly increasing glory. When he laid down his brush at the age of thirty-seven, he had finished a career which is one of the miracles of history. His work is a complete epitome of religious art, including all the great themes, and enveloping each with an atmosphere of pure spirituality, indescribably elevating to mind and soul.
His conception of the Christ-child ranges from the sleeping Babe from whose innocent face the Madonna of the Diadem softly lifts a veil, to the grave boy whom the Chair Madonna clasps in her arms. Every shade of playfulness, of affection, of dignity, and of contemplation, is mirrored in the long series of pictures in which he embodied his ever-changing ideal of the Divine Infant.
The magnificent versatility of his genius is admirably illustrated by the contrast between two of his finest works,—the Madonna of the Casa Tempi and the Madonna di San Sisto, standing the one for the human aspect and the other for the divine, in the incarnation of the Son of God. The first shows an ideal mother fondly pressing her darling’s cheek against her own; the second is a vision of ideal womanhood hastening down the centuries to present the Word to the waiting world.
The Christ-child of the Tempi painting is a dimpled baby shyly nestling against his mother’s breast; the Sistine Child is a royal messenger lightly enthroned upon the Madonna’s arm. In one conception, Mother and Son are absorbed entirely in each other; in the other, they think only of their mission to humanity, their wide eyes searching the future with far-seeing gaze, and their thoughts intent upon the coming of the heavenly kingdom.
We can appreciate the Tempi Madonna at the first glance; the meaning of the Sistine Madonna we can never fully reach, though to contemplate it day by day is to feel our thoughts become purer and our aspirations nobler.
A feature of the child-life of Jesus upon which Raphael loved to dwell is his companionship with his cousin John, a boy of nearly the same age, whose destiny was indissolubly linked with the Christ. Following the Gospel description of the Baptist when he came forth from the desert “clothed with camel’s hair and with a girdle of skin about his loins,” the artist has represented the child John as a dark, faun-like boy, with a little skin garment girt about him,—a picturesque figure to contrast with the fair beauty of the Christ-child.
The two boys are most charming, when, as in the Madonna of the Pearl, the little John seeks with childish eagerness to please his cousin. Here he is running gleefully to Jesus, with his skin garment full of newly gathered fruit. The Christ-child, seated on his grandmother’s knee, beside his mother, stretches out his hands for the gift, his face shining with simple, child-like pleasure. At another time Saint John brings a goldfinch to the Virgin’s knee, and the two children lean lovingly against her, Jesus turning his earnest eyes towards the bird, which he thoughtfully strokes. A very pretty incident is embodied in the Aldobrandini Madonna, where the Christ-child reaches from his mother’s arms to smilingly bestow a flower upon Saint John.
Other pictures introduce, more or less definitely, an element of devotion on the part of the infant Baptist, as in the Madonna of the Meadow, where he kneels to receive the cross from the hands of the Christ-child. The devotional relation is still more marked in the Belle Jardinière of the Louvre. In the Holy Family of Casa Canigiani, Jesus is giving Saint John a banner with the words Ecce Agnus Dei.
The two boys, as the central figures of the Holy Family, have engaged the brush of nearly every great religious painter, some producing familiar and domestic scenes, others emphasizing the symbolic and religious significance of the theme. Andrea del Sarto treated the subject many times, and usually portrayed the children in a natural and playful intimacy. Pinturicchio painted them running across a flowery meadow to get water from a fountain. Guilio Romano has given us the decidedly domestic scene of Jesus in the bath, with Saint John merrily pouring water upon him. Sometimes, as in a lovely work by Angiolo Bronzino, Saint John is affectionately kissing the sleeping Babe.
It was a beautiful thought on the part of some few artists,—notably Palma Vecchio, Luini, and Murillo,—to introduce a lamb as a playmate for the children, the suggestion having its origin in the Baptist’s description of Jesus as the “Lamb of God.”
In Botticelli’s Holy Family, Saint John stands by with clasped hands, adoring the Infant. Perugino places him kneeling at a little distance in the rear,—a perfect embodiment of childish devotion. In a painting by Titian, also, he kneels apart, leaning on his cross, and in one by Guido, he humbly kisses the Christ-child’s foot.
In a lovely picture by Murillo, called the “Children of the Shell,” he kneels to drink from a cup which the little Jesus holds to his lips. Here the contrast between the two is exquisitely rendered, both from the artistic and the religious point of view, the Christ-child bearing the unmistakable stamp of superiority, in spite of his childish figure, while the infant John is a charming impersonation of reverent and loving humility.
The religious spirit of the old masters has not been successfully imitated by any modern artist who has attempted to delineate the Infant Jesus and Saint John, nor is this to be expected. There are many pleasing works of art, however, which, though differing widely from early Italian standards, have an attractiveness of their own.
Such, for instance, is Boucher’s painting, thoroughly characteristic of the artist, and, when considered in itself, a very pretty thing. The two plump babies are bewitching little figures, irresistibly lovable in their dimpled beauty. Sweet cherub faces peep from the surrounding clouds, regarding the holy children with wondering awe.
The figure of the Christ-child alone does not belong to the early Renaissance, but by the seventeenth century, the subject had found favor with Guido and Franceschini in Italy, and with Murillo and Zurbaran in Spain. With all these artists it was a favorite custom to depict the child Jesus asleep on the cross. Murillo’s Infant Saviour, plaiting a crown of thorns, also belongs to this class. These forms of symbolic illustration have their modern counterpart in the work of several German artists. As the Gospel narrative furnishes no actual incidents of the early childhood of Jesus, he is shown in some attitude which will suggest his divine calling. Painted by Ittenbach, he raises his right hand to point the heavenward way, while with his left he indicates his name inscribed in the letters I. H. S. on the breast of his tunic. In Sinkel’s picture he holds a tablet of the Commandments, with his finger on the fourth, a sweet expression of Sabbath peace on his face.
Professor Deger’s picture expresses a unique and lovely conception of the Christ-child in the fields, communing with his Father, and preparing for his ministry. He is a dreamy-looking boy, of delicate features, and broad, high brow, with fair curls blowing away from his face. Though alone, he lifts his hand in blessing, as if, in his prophetic imagination, the meadows were already peopled with the throngs to whom he is to teach the sweet lessons of the lilies and the sparrow.
The childhood of Jesus came to an end at the age of twelve, when he awoke to the realization that he must be “about his Father’s business.” It was a great moment in the quiet life of the Nazarene lad. Mary and Joseph having to make their annual journey to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, had brought him with them, and allowed him to wander from them. Supposing him to be among the company with which they were travelling, they were well on their homeward way, when they discovered that he was missing. Returning to the city, and seeking him hither and thither, they at length found him in the temple, “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.”
It was the latter part of this account which the early masters seized as the motif of the Dispute in the Temple, and interpreted as meaning that the boy Christ assumed the position of teacher and preacher to the doctors. In the paintings of Duccio and Giotto, he is sitting on a platform, with the mien and gesture of a learned doctor; while other artists place him on a sort of throne or pulpit. It was left to modern art to conceive the true significance of the event, and to put before us the eager boy, listening and asking questions.
Professor Heinrich Hofmann’s beautiful picture shows a profound insight into the wonderful childhood of Jesus, as well as a fine sense of artistic composition. The boy stands in the midst of the group, lifting his eager, inquiring face to the learned doctors surrounding him. His expression conveys all the earnestness of his questionings, and at the same time shows the depth of that power of understanding which so amazed the listeners. Looking from his bright young face to the staid countenances of the professed expounders of the law, a new light flashes upon that mysterious utterance which fell in after times from the same inspired lips: “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.”