Finding the Christ Child
Disciplining the Christ
Commentary by Caleb Froehlich
It is striking that the only account of Jesus’s early years among canonical early Christian sources (Luke 2:41–52) reports a moment in his adolescence where he is being chided by Mary for failing to inform her and Joseph of his whereabouts. Such an account suggests that, like any other parenting experience, Mary’s rearing of young Jesus involved disciplinary intervention.
Max Ernst’s painting, The Virgin Chastising the Christ Child before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard, and the Painter (1926) takes this idea to—as it might be for some—disturbing proportions.
A cursory examination of the painting is enough to reveal that it deliberately draws its form and content from celebrated works of the Italian Renaissance. Jesus’s golden locks and the style and colours of Mary’s garments immediately recall, for example, Raphael’s paintings of the Madonna and Child. However, Ernst’s use of such elements turns this iconographic tradition on its head, disrupting the harmonious relationship between the blessed Virgin and the infant Christ. Instead of Mary gently cradling her son, here she spanks Jesus’s bottom with such ferocity that she turns its cheeks red and knocks his halo to the ground. The fact that Mary’s halo remains firmly intact throughout this punishment further heightens a sense of theological scandal.
We can see Ernst and his surrealist companions André Breton and Paul Éluard through a narrow window behind the Virgin. Their presence, more than possibly alluding to a triple signature, seems to suggest conspiracy; not only in their staging themselves as witnesses to the sacrilegious scene, but also as witnesses to our presumed uneasiness in seeing it. While Éluard watches the thrashing with a cold, unwavering stare and Brenton resolutely looks away, the artist himself steals a glance at us, the viewing audience, as if to ascertain our response. Sufficiently shocked?
Perhaps Ernst’s painting goes overboard, especially with its depiction of Jesus’s rosy buttocks and tumbling halo. The integrity of Mary’s halo, however, might prompt us to consider the formative influences her disciplinary intervention may have had on the growing boy, negatively as well as positively. Indeed, the verses immediately following Mary’s question, ‘why have you treated us so (Luke 2:48)?’, highlight the significance of her rebuke—Jesus ‘was obedient to them’ and ‘increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favour with God and man’(2:51–52).
Spies, Werner. 2005. Max Ernst: A Retrospective (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art)
That Difficult Son
Commentary by Caleb Froehlich
The Latin script on the book Mary holds in Simone Martini’s Christ Discovered in the Temple (1342) indicates, if it is not already apparent, that this painting depicts Mary’s question to the twelve-year-old Jesus in Luke 2:48: ‘Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously’. In the original Greek text, Mary’s words take on a more stern, admonishing tone. She does not address the adolescent Jesus as the young man he is, but uses a more juvenile descriptor that puts him firmly in his subordinate place—‘child/son’ (teknon). Moreover, her rebuke seems to express less concern for Jesus than for what he has put them through (Edwards 2015: 95).
Simone’s painting, however, may present us with a different interpretation again. Here Mary’s outstretched hand suggests that she is pleading with the apparently obstinate, ill-tempered Christ. Joseph, grasping Jesus’s shoulder, looks down at him and gestures towards his wife, as if prompting Jesus to listen to his mother. Mary’s supplicant posture is further highlighted by her sitting on a low bench, looking up at Jesus from a position of humility. Her furrowed brow and pursed lips could imply anger, but her body language seems to cast this expression in the realm of maternal fear or worry.
Regardless of how we interpret Mary’s tone and demeanour when questioning Jesus in Luke 2:48, what becomes clear from their interaction is that parent–child relations are not always smooth or easy, even between the Virgin Mother and the Christ Child. The feminist theologian Els Maeckelberghe may be right when she states that if women ‘attribute any place at all to Mary, they see her above all as “that woman with a difficult son”’ (Maeckelberghe 1989: 125). Simone’s painting brings these suggested parent–child tensions in Luke’s passage to the fore.
Edwards, James R. 2015. The Gospel According to Luke, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. by D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)
Maeckelberghe, Els. 1989. ‘“Mary”: Maternal Friend or Virgin Mother?’, in Motherhood: Experience, Institution, Theology, ed. by Anne E. Carr and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (Edinburgh: T&T Clark), pp. 120–27
Commentary by Caleb Froehlich
Carl Bloch’s Jesus is Found in the Temple depicts the very moment Mary and Joseph lay eyes on their son after searching Jerusalem for three days after the flurry of Passover activities. Aspects of this moment might resonate with parents who have lost their child in a crowd, only to find him or her in the last place they thought to look. For Mary and Joseph, however, discovering Jesus in the Temple courts, conversing with the teachers of the law, was particularly unexpected.
The text describes Mary and Joseph’s reaction at finding their son with one word, ‘astonished’ (Luke 2:48; ekplēssō). Within this context, the word could connote a variety of heightened, perhaps even conflicting, emotions and responses—responses which Bloch keeps mostly hidden in his painting. He depicts Mary and Joseph with their backs to the viewer, inviting us to imaginatively ‘complete’ the expressions on their faces.
Such invitation is hardly surprising. This scene was one of twenty-three meditative paintings of the life of Christ that Bloch created between 1865 and 1879 for the king’s oratory in Frederiksborg Castle, Denmark. To encourage meditative reflection, Bloch included seemingly random children in these paintings, likely modelled after his own children, often peering out at the viewer or directing the viewer’s gaze to specific elements in the scene (Pheysey & Holzapfel 2010: 73).
Jesus is Found in the Temple is an outstanding example of this iconographic trope. The most conspicuous figure in the painting is the young boy sitting on a lower step of the Temple, holding a string attached to the caged dove, his sacrificial-offering-in-waiting. He looks curiously, perhaps even in a startled way, at the couple. We might use this boy’s reaction to guide our own reflections as we meditate on the possible thoughts and emotions Mary and Joseph were experiencing in this moment of discovery.
Pheysey, Dawn C. and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel. 2010. The Masters Hand: The Art of Carl Heinrich Bloch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book)
Max Ernst :
The Virgin Chastising the Christ Child before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard, and the Painter, 1926 , Oil on canvas
Simone Martini :
Christ Discovered in the Temple, 1342 , Tempera and gold on poplar
Carl Bloch :
The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple, from the series The Life of Christ, 1865–79 , Oil on copper (?)
A Less than Perfect Response
Comparative commentary by Caleb Froehlich
Young Jesus’s initial response when asked by his mother why he has treated his parents so thoughtlessly—‘How is it that you sought me?’—has frequently been overlooked by biblical commentators, who instead stress the second part of his response—‘Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke 2:49). Such partiality is arguably due to an exegetical tradition of shielding the twelve-year-old boy from any charge of discourtesy, not to mention a more serious failing, in order to present Luke’s account as a disclosure of the divine nature of Jesus himself and his upbringing (Oliver 2018: 127–28). The effect was to highlight Jesus’s divine wisdom and awareness of his own divinity, as evidenced by his calling God ‘my Father’, even at a young age.
Such interpretations have shaped representations of the young Jesus in Christian iconography, steering artists away from depicting Jesus as a typical twelve-year old boy towards more theologically-driven renditions intended to underscore the boy’s divinity. Nowhere is this kind of pictorial ‘theologizing’ more evident than with the multitude of man-babies in paintings of the ‘Madonna and Child’ or with the luminous aureole framing the stoic expression of the adolescent Jesus amid a crowd of astonished, elderly scholars in many paintings of the ‘Disputation’ or ‘Christ among the Doctors’.
All three paintings under consideration here depart from these interpretive/iconographic trends in interesting ways. When they include symbols traditionally meant to communicate Jesus’s divinity, it is to play with them, sometimes even inverting them to invite a more natural or human reading of Luke’s account.
In Carl Bloch’s Jesus is Found in the Temple (1865–79), for example, a typical ‘Disputation’ or ‘Christ among the Doctors’ scene (aureole and all) is foregrounded by the turned backs of Mary and Joseph, and a boy sitting on the Temple steps. What makes this boy particularly striking is not merely that he is the painting’s central focus, but how he compares to Christ in the background. Both figures appear to be around the same adolescent age and wear similar white garments. There is no aureole framing the boy’s face, however, and, unlike Christ, he responds to the distress of Mary and Joseph. Might this boy be the Jesus Bloch saw or wanted to see in place of the seemingly aloof, uncaring Christ in Luke’s depiction of the childhood drama?
Simone Martini’s Christ Discovered in the Temple (1342) likewise illuminates the contentious nature of Jesus’s encounter with his parents. The folded arms and set facial expression Jesus exhibits could suggest his steadfast resolve and commitment to the will of his heavenly Father, which was likely how the church authorities interpreted the boy’s attitude in the fourteenth century. However, as David Brown points out, it is arguably more natural to see Jesus’s response as ‘that of a typical adolescent sulking or in a huff’ at his parent’s rebuke (Brown 2004: 419). Regardless of the urge to read Jesus’s response as one of resignation, Simone’s choice of mannerism for the twelve-year-old opens up a more intuitive or human reading of Jesus’s interaction.
Max Ernst’s The Virgin Chastising the Christ Child before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard, and the Painter (1926), goes further than the aforementioned paintings, perhaps too far, in its evocation of the Virgin’s and Jesus’ humanity. Here it is not just the fact that Mary vigorously spanks the bare bottom of the Christ child as he lies across her lap, but that his halo is seen slipping to the floor. The scene invites us to ask: did Jesus’s halo occasionally slip? Such questions, no doubt, contributed to Cologne’s archbishop closing down the exhibition in which the painting was first displayed and excommunicating Ernst before a large crowd in a nearby cathedral (Faerna 1997: 32).
Ernst’s imagery might, nevertheless, jolt us out of our theological complacency and prompt us to consider anew whether Jesus’s behaviour, particularly in Luke’s account, reflects ‘perfection’, at least regarding familial standards. Even if this means that the young Jesus’s response to Mary takes on a more withering tone, not unlike other Gospel moments where he is less than kind about his own family (e.g. Mark 3:31–35; John 2:4), it is only to emphasize his genuine humanity, which is too often unnoticed or transformed into proof for his other nature.
Brown, David. 2004. Discipleship and Imagination: Christian Tradition and Truth (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Faerna, José María. 1997. Ernst (New York: Cameo and Abrams)
Oliver, P. M. 2018. Donne’s God (New York: Routledge)