Sunday, May 22, 2016

“And People Were Bringing Children to Him”

Anonymous, Christ Blessing Children
 Southern Netherlands, c.1570
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
“And people were bringing children to Him that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this He became indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”  Then He embraced them and blessed them, placing His hands on them.”
Mark 10:13-16 (Similar also in Matthew 19:13-15 and Luke 18:15-17)

The Gospels record several instances in which Jesus said similar words about children, suggesting that being part of the Kingdom of God requires that we have childlike innocence and childlike trust in order to be part of it.  

Market Cross, Christ Blessing Children
Lowest register
Irish, 10th Century
Kells, County Meath, Ireland

Artists have responded with images that derive from these sayings.  Yet, it seems that these images have not been uniformly spread throughout the Christian era.  
They seem to cluster in groups, perhaps reflecting some of the ways in which the words of Jesus have reverberated through history.  This may not represent the totality of what may have been done and subsequently destroyed or which is otherwise not available to a reasonably thorough internet search, of course, but it is suggestive.

Ottonian ivory, Christ Blessing Children
German, 968
Paris, Musee du Louvre

In the first millennium I found very few visual references to these passages and those only toward the end of the period, in the tenth century.1  One, a panel of the so-called Market Cross from the monastic town of Kells in County Meath, Ireland (eventual hiding place of the famous Book of Kells), shows a badly eroded scene from a series on the life of Christ, which may show Jesus blessing smaller figures, which can be interpreted as the blessing of children.  The other, is a small Ottonian ivory plaque, clearly showing a scene in which Christ is imparting a blessing to a little one. 
Christ Blessing Children, from Gospels of Otto III
German (Reichenau), c.1000
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4453, fol. 116v

The first five hundred years of the second millennium seem to fare little better, in spite of a few appearances in manuscript paintings.  
T'Oros Roslin, Christ Blessing Children
from Book of the Gospels
Armenian, 1262
Baltimore, Walters Art Gallery
MS W539, 83v

Jean Colombe, Christ Blessing Children
from Ludolphe de Saxe, Vita Jesu Christi
French (Bourges), 1475-1499
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 178, fol. 46

Georg Pencz, Christ Blessing Children
German, 1540
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
However, at the beginning of the second half of the second millennium there is a virtual explosion of images based on these texts.  The images appear most frequently in Germany and the Low Countries and appear in all forms of media from paintings to prints and even to Delftware and, in one charming instance, to dollhouse furniture!  Art historians have speculated that this sudden surge in the appearance of a previously infrequently imagined New Testament subject may be related to the upheavals of the Reformation in a very specific way.2 
Lucas Cranach the Elder and his workshop, Christ Blessing Children
German, 1545-1550
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Cranach's images were particurly potent in forming an iconography
comfortable for Protestants as he was closely allied with Martin Luther.

Following the first appearance of what would become Protestant theology, with Luther’s initial outburst of 1517; other, more radical, reformers also appeared.  Among the most radical were loosely constituted groups that were known as Anabaptists.  The mini-sects that formed as part of the Anabaptist groupings are the ancestors of some of today’s most marginalized Christian groups, such as the Amish and the Mennonites, as well as the several varieties of Baptists and denominations deriving from them.  

Jacob and Albert Maler, Christ Blessing Children
Dutch, 1550-1575
Kampen, Stedelijk Museum Kampen

In the highly political and militarized sixteenth century the Anabaptists were distinguished by their pacifism, by a form of primitive communism and by their refusal of allegiance to the civil authorities.  A messianic Anabaptist city government set up in the city of Munster in Germany during the early 1530s, following shortly on the horrors of the German Peasants’ War (1525-1525), brought both Catholic and Protestant princes into the field against them.  This resulted in their destruction as a religious grouping within the German states and the move of many survivors to the east, into Moravia, where they were able to survive. Other groups headed for England.

 One of the Anabaptists' primary doctrinal differences with both Catholic and Lutheran Christians, still recognizable in their descendants today, was over the practice of infant baptism.  For the Anabaptists only an adult can be baptized, after making a confession of belief. This set them against both the Catholic practice, which had developed over the centuries since the last Roman persecutions, and against Luther and his followers, who followed the Catholic tradition.3

Master H.B. a la tete de Griffon, Christ Blessing Children
German, c.1550
Paris, Museee du Louvre
Leonard Gaultier, Christ Blessing the Children
French, c.1576-1580
Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art

Gerard Groenning, Christ Blessing Children
 from Thesaurus Novi Testamenti elegantissimis iconibus expressus continens historias atque miracula do[mi] ni nostri Iesu Christi (hand colored engraving)
Dutch, 1585
London, British Museum
Art historians have seen the sudden upswing in images of Christ blessing the children as a support for the idea of infant baptism, as practiced both by the Catholic church and the Lutherans and other groups derived from them (such as the Anglicans).  For, if even the smallest child was worthy of being blessed by Jesus and held up as a model for the adult Christian, then even the smallest child can have faith and deserves to be included in the Church.  It is also notable that nearly every image of this subject from this period does include very small children, babes in arms, among the recipients of Christ's blessing and frequently interacting with Him.  This is very different from the earlier images, which included only older children.

This reasoning may indeed be part of the intention behind these images, since the upsurge is so sudden and appears to correlate well with the developments of the Reformation/Counter-Reformation period. For example, it does appear to begin in Germany, spread to Holland and Flanders and from there to enter the Catholic world through Flanders and France.  It does not appear to have been particularly popular in Italy or in Spain, the two greatest centers of Catholic culture in Europe during this period.  
Artus Wolfaerts and Workshop, Christ Blessing Children
Flemish, c.1600
Private Collection

Jacob Jordaens, Christ Blessing Children
Flemish, 1615-1616
St. Louis, MO, Saint Louis Art Museum
Anthony Van Dyck, Christ Blessing Children
Flemish, 1618-1620
Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada
In this beautiful painting, Van Dyck appears to have painted a real
family, which brings the interesting (and highly sympathetic) presence of the
father as presenter of the children, in addition to the more usual image of the mother.  

Interestingly, a cursory study of the compositions of the works coming from this period indicates that a shift occurred around the turn into the seventeenth century.  All the sixteenth-century works that I uncovered focus on the person of Jesus.  He sits or stands near the center of every composition.  After the year 1600, however, His position has been moved to one side, with the important exception of Rembrandt's most famous etching.  This allows the artist to put the focus of the painting on the children and their mothers (and in two instances on the fathers as well).

Jesus is seen in profile or in shadow (the early Jacob Jordaens even shows Him from behind) and the individual faces and expressions of the children and their parents is what strikes our eyes first.  In the case of the Ottawa Van Dyck and the de Bray from the Frans Halsmuseum these figures may well be actual portraits.

Jacob de Wet I, Christ Blessing Children
Dutch, 1640-1672
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Willem Jansz Verstraeten and Willem Isaacsz van Swanenburg
Christ Blessing the Children on Delftware
Dutch, c.1645-1660
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Rembrandt, Christ Blessing the Chldren
Called "The 100 Guilder Print"
Dutch, c.1649
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Sebastien Bourdon, Christ Blessing Children,
French, 1650-1670
Paris, Musee du Louvre

Nicolaes Maes, Christ Blessing Children
Dutch, 1652
London, National Gallery

Jacob Jordaens, Christ Blessing Children
Flemish, 1660-1669
Copenhagen, National Gallery of Denmark
Jan de Braij (Bray), Christ Blessing Children
Dutch, 1663
Haarlem, Frans Halsmuseum
Jan de Bray had obviously seen the painting by Van Dyck
or perhaps drawings and/or prints made from it.

Engraving after Jan de Bray
Dutch, 1663-1800
Amsterdam, Rijkmuseum
This engraving after the de Bray painting,
(shown on the left) which
itself derives from the composition of Van Dyck
(shown above) demonstrates how an image
 can be widely disseminated
to both the public and to other artists. 

Johannes Voorhout I
Christ Blessing the Children
Dollhouse Chimney
Dutch, c. 1690-1710
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

It is also interesting that, by the end of the seventeenth century, this image had even found its way into the decoration of a luxury dollhouse, no doubt echoing the way in which it was also used in full sized ones.

This profusion of images appears to taper off somewhat at the end of the seventeenth century and, when it begins to pick up steam again, at the end of the eighteenth century, its spread is wider, embracing France and England as well as Germany and the Netherlands.  It also begins to focus once more on a more central figure of Jesus.
Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier
 Christ Blessing Chldren
French, 1783
Rouen, Musee des Beaux-Arts

William Blake, Christ Blessing Children
English, 1799
London, Tate Gallery

Antoine Jean Joseph Ansiaux, Christ Blessing Children
French, 1820
Versailles, Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon

During the nineteenth century the image becomes more sentimentalized than formerly, with just a few notable exceptions. Movements such as the Nazarenes among German artists and the Pre-Raphaelites in England contributed to a turning away from grand scenes, in favor of a simpler, "barebones" retelling.  This in turn often led to sentimentalization.  The process can be observed in the comparison of a drawing by the Nazarene artist, Johann Friedrich Overbeck and a mezzotint engraving made after it (or after a painting by Overbeck which is not available on the internet).  The mezzotint could be printed in multiple copies, making it available to a wider public than those who could have seen either the drawing or a finished painting.  It could, thus, serve as a easy aid to future compositions as well as a guide to the public as to what such a picture should look like.  Since it shows a placid, vaguely classical scene this could lead quite easily to a growing sentimentality.

Johann Friedrich Overbeck
Christ Blessing Children, Drawing
German, 1824-1835
Paris, Musee du Louvre
Mezzotint after Johan Friedrich Overbeck
After 1830
London, British Museum

Hippolyte Flandrin, Christ Blessing Children
French, 1836-1838
Lisieux, Musee d'At et d'Histoire
Benjamin Haydon, Christ Blessing Chldren
English, 1837
Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery

Charles Locke Eastlake, Christ Blessing Children
English, 1839
Manchester, Manchester City Galleries

Cornelis Kruseman, Christ Blessing Children
Dutch, 1840
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Richard Cockle Lucas, Christ Blessing Children
English, 1840-1863
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Some painters, late in the nineteenth century, did try to reimagine the scene.  The German, Fritz von Uhde, and the Frenchman, James Tissot, both attempted to inject a greater sense of reality.  Both were artists heavily influenced by the Realism with which they had grown up and the Impressionism which their slightly younger contemporaries were exploring.  Von Uhde's image of the scene sets Christ into a contemporary modern setting, a sparsely furnished room, imparting his blessing to the barefoot children of the poor, while their parents line up respectfully to approach Him.  Tissot's image comes from his late series of Biblical illustrations for The Life of Christ, published in Paris, London and New York in the 1890s.  He painstakingly recreates the world of first century Palestine to make us witnesses of the actual event described in the Scriptures.
Fritz von Uhde, Christ Blessing Chldren
German, 1885
Greifswald, Pomerania State Museum
James Tissot, Christ Blessing Children
French, 1886-1896
New York, Brooklyn Museum

With these few exceptions, the image had become totally sentimental by the turn of the twentieth century and continues to be so to this day (just Google images for the words “suffer the little children” or “let the children come to me”).  There is one notable exception and this is the 1945 expressionist painting by Georges Roualt.
Georges Roualt, Christ Blessing Children
French, 1945
Paris, Centre national d'art et de culture Georges-Pompidou
It appears, therefore, that at certain times and places the image of Jesus proposing the child as the model for the believer has more resonance than at others.   It would appear that the rise of this image, though it existed before and after, largely coincided with the religious turmoil of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and had a brief revival in the mid-to late-nineteenth century, also a period of unease as the Industrial Revolution wrought many changes in society.  It may be that these words of Jesus have most resonance in periods during which rapid change is happening, which makes their absence from most of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries all the more puzzling.

© M. Duffy, 2016
1.  See Kibish, Christine Ozarowska.  “Lucas Cranach's Christ Blessing the Children: A Problem of Lutheran Iconography”, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Sep., 1955), pp. 196-203.  She lists the traces of other works from the first and early second millennia, but none survive in clear form. 
2.  See also, Kuhn, Charles L.  “The Mairhauser Epitaph: An Example of Late Sixteenth-Century Lutheran Iconography”, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 58, No. 4 (Dec., 1976), pp. 542-546.
3. Anabaptist. 2016. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 22 May, 2016, from

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

At This Sound, They Gathered In a Crowd

From Lives of the Virgin and of Christ
Italian (Naples), c. 1350)
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Français 9561, fol. 189v

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem.  
At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd” 
Acts 2:5-6 

While researching illustrations for the essay on Pentecost “Tongues of Fire” I came across a series of images that seem to beg for an essay of their own.  These are a series of images, dating primarily from the fourteenth century, showing both the inside and the outside of the building in which the disciples are experiencing the Pentecost.  

In the earliest images, from the first half of the fourteenth century, we see a scene similar to all other images of Pentecost with the disciples (and Mary) receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire.  However, the full image shows the building in which they are seated as if it were tilted and the roof removed.  For we see, in addition to the interior, the exterior doors and, standing before the doors, people showing curiosity about what is happening inside.

Giotto, the great painter whose work injected  began the development that came to be called the Renaissance produced a similar image several decades earlier.

Giotto, Pentecost
Italian, c.1320
London, National Gallery

As the use of perspective became better understood, this image developed.  In those images made after 1360 we can see that the action has now been divided into two levels.  The Pentecost is occurring in the upper level, as if it were happening in a portico on the second floor of the house, while below, on the street, stand the curious.

Andrea da Firenze, Pentecost
Italian, 1366-1367
Florence, Church of Santa Maria Novella, Cappellone degli Spangnoli

Jacopo di Cione and Workshop, Pentecost
From The San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece
Italian, c. 1370-1371
London, National Gallery

Eventually, perspective developed to the point where both the interior of the building, with the scene of the Pentecost, and the outside, street scene, with its curious passersby, could be depicted with what appears to be nearly realistic.

Georges Trubert, Pentecost
From the Prayer Book of Rene II of Lorraine
French (Nancy), 1492-1493
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 10491, fol. 221

© M. Duffy, 2016

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.