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)
41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. 42And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom; 43and when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, 44but supposing him to be in the company they went a day’s journey, and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances; 45and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him. 46After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; 47and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48And when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” 49And he said to them, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them. 51And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.