What Child is this?

A few years ago I found a delightful Baby Jesus at a sacred art store in Spain. During my trip to Spain I had gone to numerous Christmastide Masses where the adoration of the Baby Jesus took place afterwards: the priest would fetch a life-sized Baby Jesus from a manger built near the altar and bring it to the steps for the congregation to kiss. I loved that ritual. I could not recall seeing it in Brazil, so I thought I’d buy a similar image to take back as a gift for a priest I knew.

The Baby Jesus that I bought was more or less of this type, though closer to life sized. Photo: Circello, Nativity scene by Annassunta O., 03/01/16

When I got home and happily showed my purchase to some friends they responded with awkward flinches: “But he’s naked! Let’s get him some clothes!” I thought, my God, really? Are these people so strangely prudish that they’ve never diapered a baby? Have they never been in a household with an infant? I was used to toddlers running around in diapers. Newborns, not so much, as they were usually bundled up to avoid being chilly. But I’ve held my share of mostly-naked babies in my life and never thought it was strange.

The Baby Jesus was soon outfitted in a miniature chasuble and alb, which I thought cute, if a bit odd. But with all respect for local custom I delivered the gift dressed as required. (While trying to find photos of this from Brazil, I stumbled across this article about a similar custom in Mexico, though there it is specifically done for the Feast of the Presentation. There are a couple of good photos at the link.)

The subject came up again recently when I was showing some friends a painting I liked. Oh, but the Baby Jesus is naked! What good mother would leave her child undressed? Let alone Mary, Mother of God, who knew that her child was not just any old baby (which any mother would already consider a treasure!) but King, Redeemer, Saviour, Lord? Surely she wouldn’t just leave him laying about with not a stitch of clothes on, let alone do so in a desert climate in December and January, even less so in an unheated barn where the prickly straw and dirt floor would hardly be comfortable surfaces! This was the first time I’d heard something of a logical explanation for the apparent local custom.

If one needs greater authority than common sense, however, Holy Scripture specifies that the Holy Virgin wrapped the Christ Child in swaddling clothes before laying him in the manger. In fact, this detail was so important that the angels told the shepherds it was a sign by which they would recognize that they had found the Christ Child.

A swaddled Baby Jesus in a 14th century painting from Padua. Source.

I still wondered if the depictions of the Holy Child naked versus swaddled might have to do with regional styles, or with different epochs in art history. So I did a brief survey of images on Wikimedia Commons. Here are a few interesting things I discovered:

13th century Western paintings of the Nativity: the Christ Child is always in swaddling clothes.

14th century Western paintings of the Nativity: 15 examples swaddled, 3 dressed in a robe or gown. 1 draped with a loincloth, 4 naked.

15th century Western paintings of the Nativity: 4 swaddled, 41 naked, 4 draped in transparent sheer fabric that does not cover the nakedness.

Anything after the 15th century: naked, naked, naked

One odd result of the growing 15th century obsession with naked Baby Jesus is the plethora of images where the poor Baby is sprawled on the dirt floor at the feet of his apparently unconcerned parents and/or visiting angels or neighbors.

I checked Orthodox icons, too, for comparison. They were not sorted by date on Wikimedia Commons, my source of images. But the results were different. There were icons in which the Holy Infant was swaddled, dressed in a robe, or naked. But with a few rare exceptions this depended specifically on the context:

Baby Jesus in the manger: swaddled
Baby Jesus enthroned on his Holy Mother’s lap while adored by the Magi or surrounded by saints or angels: robed
Baby Jesus being given a bath by the midwife right after his birth (this is a not uncommon theme in Eastern Nativity icons): naked

This icon has the swaddled Baby Jesus up in the manger, and the naked Baby Jesus being bathed in the lower foreground.
Here’s another by the same artist showing the third common style: the Christ Child wearing robes, while seated on His Mother’s lap, in the presence of the adoring Magi.

So there you go – the curious case of the dressing of Our Lord by His Holy Mother, as depicted in art and text over 2000 years.

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