Is This The Baby Jesus?
What’s wrong with this beautiful medieval painting? Jesus is wrong, surely! He doesn’t look like a child. He looks more like an adult—fully formed from the womb. What could be more wrong than that?
The infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke do not suggest that Jesus’ growth and development were unnatural. Luke says that he “increased in wisdom and in stature” (Lk 2:52). This means that he grew up like any other young boy or girl even though he was the Son of God.
This, after all, is what the incarnation is all about—Jesus becoming fully human just as we are with all its problems, possibilities and limitations.
So has the medieval artist got it wrong?
Doubtless he knew that newborn babies weren’t formed adult like from the womb. Perhaps then he was trying to convey some other message to the viewer.
It seems, as in other medieval portraits of the Christ child, that the artist was seeking to show that whilst Jesus may have been an infant he was still fully divine.
This truth is portrayed in the mature, intelligent gaze that Christ directs towards his mother.
Although he is constrained within the framework of a baby’s physical body his divinity is always visible and unchanging—there in its fullness from the very outset of Christ’s life.
In other words Jesus is both God and man, as John puts in his prologue: “…the Word was God…the Word became flesh” (John 1:1,14).
The artist’s concern then is not to portray for us a lifelike portrait of the infant Jesus, but to take us deeper into the truth of who he is by distorting our perceptions of reality.
If we want to understand Jesus, the artist suggests, then we are going to have to view him in a new if shocking light.
It would be shocking indeed to see a baby with an adult head and face—but how much more shocking or—awe-inspiring—says, the artist, to hold a baby who was also the creator of the universe!
Painting by Duccio di Buoninsegma (c.1280s)