Childhood in Mediæval Art

THE power of Christianity lies in its prophecy of universality, and the most significant note of this power is in its comprehension of the poor and the weak, not merely as the objects of a benediction proceeding from some external society, but as themselves constituent members of that society, sharing in all its rights and fulfilling its functions. When the last great prophet of Israel and forerunner of Judaic Christianity sent to inquire what evidence Jesus of Nazareth could give that he was the Christ, the answer which came back had the conclusive words, “ To the poor the gospel is preached.” The same Jesus, when he would give his immediate followers the completest type of the kingdom which was to prevail throughout the world, took a child, and set him in the midst of them. There is no hardly gained position in the development of human society which may not find its genetic idea in some word or act of the Son of Man, and the proem to the great song of an expectant democracy is in the brief hour of the first Christian society, which held all things in common.

The sketch of a regenerated human society, contained in the New Testament, has been long in filling out, and the day which the first generation of Christians thought so near at hand has thus far had only a succession of proleptic appearances ; but from the first the note of the power of Christianity, which lies in the recognition of poverty and weakness, has never been wanting, and has been most loudly struck in the great epochs of Christian revival. In the struggle after purity of associated life, which had its witness in the orders of the church, poverty was accepted as a necessary condition, and the constructive genius of the human mind, dealing with the realities of Christian faith, rose to its highest point in presenting, not the maturity, but the infancy of Jesus Christ. Each age offers its contribution to the perfection of the Christian ideal, and while, in the centuries lying on either side of the Renaissance, the church as an ecclesiastical system was enforcing the dogma of mediatorial sacrifice as something outside of humanity, the spirit of God, in the person of great painters, was drawing the thoughts of men to the redemption of the world, which lies in the most sacred of human relations. The great efflorescence of art, which we recognize as the gift of these centuries, has left as its most distinctive memorial the type of Christianity expressed in the Madonna.


In the Holy Family the child is the essential figure. In the earliest examples of the mother and child, both Mary and Jesus are conceived as symbols of religious faith, and the attitude of the child is unchildlike, being that of a dispenser of blessings with uplifted hand. The group is not distinctly of the mother and child, but of the Virgin and the Saviour, the Saviour being represented as a child in order to indicate the ground of the adoration paid to the Virgin. They stand before one as possessed of coördinate dignity. It is a curious and suggestive fact that the Byzantine type of the Madonna, which rarely departed much from this symbolic treatment, has continued to be the preference of those whose conceptions of the religious life are most closely identified with a remote sacramentarianism. The Italian lemonade-seller has a Byzantine Madonna in his booth ; the Belgian churches abound in so-called sacred pictures ; the Russian merchant salutes an icon of the same type ; and the ritualistic enthusiast of the Anglican revival modifies his æsthetic views by his religious sympathy, and stops short in his admiration with Cimabue and Giotto.

In the development of the Madonna from its first form as a rigid symbol to its latest as a realistic representation of motherhood, we are aware of a change in the minds of the people who worship before the altars where the pictures are placed, and in the minds of the painters who produce the almost endless variations on this theme. The worshiper, dispossessed of a belief in the fatherhood of God, came to take refuge in the motherhood of Mary. Formally taught the wrath of God, he found in the familiar relation of mother and child the most complete type vouchsafed to him of that love which the church by many informal ways bade him believe lay somewhere in the divine life.

Be this as it may, the treatment of the subject in a domestic and historical form followed the treatment in a religious and ecclesiological mode. In the earlier representations of the Madonna there was a twofold thought exhibited. The mother was the queen of heaven, and she derived her dignity from the child on her knee. Hence she is sometimes shown adoring the child, and the child looks up into the mother’s face with his finger on his lip, expressive of the utterance, I am the Word. This adoration of the child by the mother was, however, but a transient phase : the increasing worship paid to the Virgin forbade that she should be so subordinated ; and in the gradual expansion of the theme, by which saints and martyrs and angels were grouped in attendant ministry, more and more importance was attached to the person of the Virgin. The child looks up in wonder and affectionate admiration. He caresses her, and offers her a child’s love mingled with a divine being’s calm self-content.

For throughout the whole period of the religious presentation of the Madonna, even when the Madonna herself is conspicuously the occasion of the picture, we may observe the influence of the child, — an influence sometimes subtle, sometimes open and manifest. It is not enough to say that this child is Jesus, as it is not enough to say that the mother is the Virgin Mary. The divine child is the sign of an ever-present childhood in humanity; the divine mother the sign of a love which the religion of Christianity never wholly forgot. The common imagination was perpetually seeking to relieve Mary and Jesus of all attributes which interfered with the central and inhering relation of mother and child: through this type of love the mind apprehended the gospel of Christianity as in no other way.

Indeed, this apotheosis of childhood and maternity is at the core of the religion of hope which was inclosed in the husk of mediæval Christianity, and it was made the theme of many variations. Before it had ceased to be a symbol of worship, it was offering a nucleus for the expression of a more varied human hope and interest. The Holy Family in the hands of painters and sculptors, and the humbler class of designers which sprang into notice with the introduction of printing and engraving, becomes more and more emblematic of a pure and happy domestic group. Joseph is more frequently introduced, and John Baptist appears as a playmate of the child Jesus ; sometimes they are seen walking in companionship. Certain incidents in later life are symbolically prefigured in the realistic treatment of homely scenes, as in the Madonna by Giulio Romano, where the child stands in a basin, while the young S. John pours water upou him, Mary washes him, S. Elizabeth stands by holding a towel, and S. Joseph watches the scene, — an evident prefigurement of the baptism in the Jordan. Or again, Mary, seated, holds the infant Christ between her knees ; Elizabeth leans over the back of the chair; Joseph rests on his staff behind the Virgin ; the little S. John and an angel present grapes, while four other angels are gathering and bringing them. By such a scene Ippolito Andreasi would remind people that Jesus is the true vine.


The recognition of childhood as the heart of the family is discoverable even more emphatically in the art of the northern people, among whom domestic life always had greater respect. It may seem a trivial reason, but I suspect nature holds the family more closely together in cold countries, which compel much indoor and fireside life, than in lands which tempt to vagrancy. At any rate, the fact remains that the Germanic peoples have been home-cultivating. It did not need the Roman Tacitus to find this out, but his testimony helps us to believe that the disposition was a radical one, which Christianity reinforced rather than implanted. Lord Lindsay makes the pregnant observation, “ Our Saviour’s benediction of the little children as a subject [is] from first to last Teutonic, — I scarcely recollect a single Italian instance of it; ”1 and in the revival of religious art, at which Overbeck and Cornelius assisted, this and similar subjects, by their frequency, mark a differentiation from art south of the Alps, whose traditions, nevertheless, the German school was consciously following.

Although of a period subsequent to the Renaissance, an excellent illustration of the religious representation of the childhood of Jesus in northern art is contained in a series of twelve prints executed in the Netherlands, and described in detail by Mrs. Jameson.2 The series is entitled The Infancy of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and the title-page is surrounded by a border composed of musical instruments, spinning-wheels, distaffs, and other implements of female industry, intermixed with all kinds of masons’ and carpenters’ tools. In the first of the prints, the figure of Christ is seen in a glory, surrounded by cherubim. In the second, the Virgin is seated on the hill of Sion ; the infant in her lap, with outspread arms, looks up to a choir of angels, and is singing with them. In the third, Jesus slumbering in his cradle is rocked by two angels, while Mary sits by, engaged in needlework. The fourth shows the interior of a carpenter’s shop: Joseph is plying his work, while Joachim stands near him; the Virgin is measuring linen, and S. Anna looks on ; two angels are at play with the infant Christ, who is blowing soapbubbles. In the fifth picture, Mary prepares the family meal, while Joseph is in the background chopping wood ; more in front, Jesus sweeps together the chips, and two angels gather them. In the sixth, Mary is seen reeling off a skein of thread; Joseph is squaring a plank; Jesus is picking up chips, again assisted by two angels. The seventh shows Mary seated at her spinning-wheel ; Joseph, aided by Jesus, is sawing through a large beam, the two angels standing by. The eighth is somewhat similar: Mary holds her distaff, while Joseph saws a beam on which Jesus stands, and the two angels help in the work. In the ninth print, Joseph is busy building the frame-work of a house, assisted by one of the angels ; Jesus is boring with a large gimlet, the other angel helping him; and Mary winds thread. In the next, Joseph is at work roofing the house ; Jesus, in company with the angels, carries a beam up the ladder; While below, in front, Mary is carding wool or flax. The eleventh transfers the work, with an apparent adaptation to Holland, to the building of a boat, where Joseph is helped by Jesus, who holds a hammer and chisel, still attended by the angels ; the Virgin is knitting a stocking, and the newly built house is seen in the background. In the last of the series, Joseph is erecting a fence round a garden ; Jesus, with the help of the angels, is fastening the palings together; while Mary is weaving garlands of roses.

Here is a reproduction of the childhood of the Saviour in the terms of a homely Netherland family life, the naturalistic treatment diversified by the use of angelic machinery. The prints were a part of the apparatus used by the priests in educating the people. However such instruction may have fallen short of the highest truths of Christianity, its recognition of the simple duties of life and its enforcement of these by the example of the Son of Man make us slow to regard such interposition of the church as remote from the spirit of Christ. If, as is quite possible, these prints were employed by the Jesuits, then their significance becomes doubly noticeable. In that vigorous attempt by Loyola and his order to maintain an organic Christian unity against the apparent disruption of Christianity, such a mode as this would find a place as serving to emphasize that connection between the church and the family which the Jesuits instinctively felt to be essential to the supremacy of the former.


Whatever light the treatment of the Madonna subject may throw upon the ages in which it is uppermost in men’s thoughts, the common judgment is sound which looks for the most significance in the works of Raphael. Even those who turn severely away from him, and seek for purer art in his predecessors, must needs use his name as one of epochal consequence. So many forces of the age meet in Raphael, who was peculiarly open to influences, that no other painter can so well be chosen as an exponent of the idea of the time; and as one passes in review the successive Madonnas, one may not only detect the influence of Perugino, of Leonardo, of Michelangelo, and other masters, but may see the ripening of a mind, upon which fell the spirit of the age, busy with other things than painting.

Of the early Madonnas of Raphael, it is noticeable how many present the Virgin engaged in reading a book, while the child is occupied in other ways, sometimes even seeking to interrupt the mother and disengage her attention. Thus in one in the Berlin museum, which is formal, though unaffected, Mary reads a book, while the child plays with a goldfinch ; in the Madonna in the Casa Counestabile, at Perugia, the child plays with the leaves of the book ; in the Madonna del Cardellino, the little S. John presents a goldfinch to Jesus, and the mother looks away from her book to observe the children ; in that at Berlin, which is from the Casa Colonna, the child is held on the mother’s knee in a somewhat struggling attitude, and has his left hand upon the top of her dress, near her neck, his right upon her shoulder, while the mother, with a look of maternal tenderness, holds the book aside. In the middle period of Raphael’s work this motive appears once at least in the St. Petersburg Madonna, which is a quiet landscape-scene, where the child is in the Madonna’s lap : she holds a book, which she has just been reading; the little S. John kneels before his divine companion with infantine grace, and offers him a cross, which he receives with a look of tender love ; the Madonna’s eyes are directed to the prophetic play of the children with a deep, earnest expression.

The use of the book is presumably to denote the Madonna’s piety; and in the earlier pictures she is not only the object of adoration to the worshiper, who sees her in her earthly form, yet endowed with sinless grace, but the object also of interest to the child, who sees in her the mother. This reciprocal relation of mother and child is sometimes expressed with great force, as in the Madonna della Casa Tempi, in the Pinacothek at Munich, where the Virgin, who is standing, tenderly presses the child’s head against her face, while he appears to whisper words of endearment. In these and other of the earlier Madonnas of Raphael, there is an enthusiasm and a dreamy sentiment which seems to seek expression chiefly through the representation of holy womanhood, the child being a part of the interpretation of the mother. The mystic solemnity of the subject is relieved by a lightness of touch, which was the irrepressible assertion of a strong human feeling.

Later, in what is called his middle period, a cheerfulness and happy contemplation of life pervade Raphael’s work, as in the Bridgewater Madonna, where the child, stretched in the mother’s lap, looks up with a graceful and lively action, and fixes his eyes upon her in deep thought, while she looks back with maternal, reverent joy. The Madonna of the Chair illustrates the same general sentiment, where the mother appears as a beautiful and blooming woman, looking out of the picture in the tranquil enjoyment of motherly love ; the child, full and strong in form, leans upon her bosom in a child’s careless attitude, the picture of trust and content.

The works of Raphael’s third period, and those executed by his pupils in a spirit and with a touch which leave them sometimes hardly distinguishable from the master’s, show a profounder penetration of life, and at the same time a firmer, more reasonable apprehension of the divinity which lies inclosed in the subject. Mary is now something more than a young man’s dream of virginal purity and maternal tenderness,—she is also the blessed among women ; the infant Christ is not only the innocent, playful child, but the prophetic soul, conscious of his divinity and his destiny. These characteristics pervade both the treatment which regards them as historic, personages and that which invests them with adorable attributes as having their throne in heaven. The Holy Family is interpreted in a large, serious, and dignified manner, and in the exalted, worshiped Madonna there is a like vision of things eternal seen through the human form.

To illustrate this an example may be taken of each class. The Madonna del Passegio, in the Bridgewater gallery, is a well-known composition, which represents the Madonna and child walking through a field ; Joseph is in advance, and has turned to look for the others. They have been stopped by the infant S. John Baptist, clad in a rough skin, who presses eagerly forward to kiss Jesus. The mother places a restraining hand upon the shoulders of S. John, and half withdraws the child Jesus from his embrace. A classic grace marks Jesus, who looks steadfastly into the eyes of the impassioned John. The three figures in the principal group are conceived in a noble manner : S. John, prophesying in his face the discovery of the Lamb of God ; Mary, looking down with a sweet gravity which marks the holy children, and would separate Jesus as something more than human from too close fellowship with John ; Jesus himself, a picture of glorious childhood, with a far-reaching look in his eye, as he gently thrusts back the mother with one hand, and with the other lays hold of the cross which John bears.

On the other hand, an example of the treatment of the adorable Madonna is that of San Sisto, in the Dresden gallery. It is not necessary to dwell on the details of a picture which rises at once to every one’s mind. The circumstance of innumerable angels’ heads, of the attendant S. Sixtus and S. Barbara, the sweep of cloud and drapery, the suggestion of depths below and of heights above, of heaven itself listening at the Madonna’s feet, — all these translate the mother and babe with ineffable sweetness and dignity into a heavenly place, and make them the centre of the spiritual universe. Yet in all this Raphael has rested his art in no elaborate use of celestial machinery. He has taken the simple, elemental relation, and invested it with its eternal properties. He gives not a supernatural and transcendent mother and child, but a glorified humanity. Therefore it is that this picture, and with it the other great Madonnas of Raphael, may be taken entirely away from altar and sanctuary, and placed in the shrine of the household. The universality of the appeal is seen in the unhesitating adoption of the Sistine Madonna as an expression of religious art by those who are even antagonistic to the church which called it forth.


The concentration of Raphael’s genius to so large an extent upon the subject of the Madonna was not a mere accident of the time, nor, when classic forms were renewing their power, was it a solecism. The spirit of the Renaissance entered profoundly into Raphael’s work, and determined powerfully the direction which it took. When he was engaged upon purely classic themes, it is interesting to see how frequently he turned to the forms of children. His decorative work is rich with the suggestion which they bring. One may observe the graceful figures issuing from the midst of flower and leaf; above all, one may note how repeatedly he presents the myth of Amor, and recurs to the Amorini, types of childhood under a purely naturalistic conception.

The child Jesus and the child Amor appear side by side in the creations of Raphael’s genius. In the great Renaissance, of which he was so consummate an exponent, the ancient classic world and the Christian met in these two types of childhood : the one a childhood of the air, unmixed with good or evil ; the other a childhood of heaven and earth, proleptic of earthly conflict, proleptic also of heavenly triumph. The coincidence is not of chance. The new world into which men were looking was not, as some thought, to be in the submersion of Christianity and a return to Paganism, nor, as others, in a stern asceticism, which should render Christianity an exclusive church, standing aloof from the world as from a thing wholly evil. There was to be room for truth and love to dwell together, and the symbol of this union was the child. Raphael’s Christ child drew into its features a classic loveliness ; his Amor took on a Christlike purity and truthfulness.

Leslie, in his Handbook for Young Painters, makes a very sensible reflection upon Raphael’s children, as distinguished from the unchildlike children of Francia, for example. “ A fault of many painters,” he says, “ in their representations of childhood is, that they make it taking an interest in what can only concern more advanced periods of life. But Raphael’s children, unless the subject requires it should be otherwise, are as we see them generally in nature, wholly unconcerned with the incidents that occupy the attention of their elders. Thus the boy, in the cartoon of the Beautiful Gate, pulls the girdle of his grandfather, who is entirely absorbed in what S. Peter is saying to the cripple. The child, impatient of delay, wants the old man to move on. In the Sacrifice at Lystra, also, the two beautiful boys placed at the altar, to officiate at the ceremony, are too young to comprehend the meaning of what is going on about them. One is engrossed with the pipes on which he is playing, and the attention of the other is attracted by a ram brought for sacrifice. The quiet simplicity of these sweet children has an indescribably charming effect in this picture, where every other figure is under the influence of an excitement they alone do not partake in. Children, in the works of inferior painters, are often nothing else than little actors ; but what I have noticed of Raphael’s children is true, in many instances, of the children in the pictures of Rembrandt, Jan Steen, Hogarth, and other great painters, who, like Raphael, looked to nature for their incidents.”

There was one artist of this time who looked to nature not merely for the incidents of childhood, but for the soul of childhood itself. It is impossible to regard the work of Luca della Robbia, especially in that ware which receives his name, without perceiving that here was a man who saw children and rejoiced in their young lives with a simple, ingenuous delight. The very spirit which led this artist to seek for expression in homely forms of material, to domesticate art, as it were, was one which would make him quick to seize upon, not the incidents alone, but the graces, of childhood. Nor is it straining a point to say that the purity of his color was one with the purity of this sympathy with childhood. The Renaissance as a witness to a new occupation of the world by humanity finds its finest expression in the hope which springs in the lovely figures of Luca della Robbia.

It is significant of this Renaissance — it is significant, I think we shall find, of every great new birth in the world — that it turns its face toward childhood, and looks into that image for the profoundest realization of its hopes and dreams. In the attitude of men toward childhood we may discover the near or far realization of that supreme hope and confidence with which the great head of the human family saw, in the vision of a child, the new heaven and the new earth. It was when his disciples were reasoning among themselves which of them should be the greatest that Jesus took a child, and set him by him, and said unto them, “ Whosoever shall receive this child in my name receiveth me.” The reception of the Christ by men, from that day to this, has been marked by successive throes of humanity, and in each great movement there has been a new apprehension of childhood, a new recognition of the meaning involved in the pregnant words of the Saviour. Such a recognition lies in the children of Raphael and of Luca della Robbia. There may have been no express intimation on their part of the connection between their works and the great prophecy, but it is often for later generations to read more clearly the presence of a thought by means of light thrown back upon it. The course of Christianity since the Renaissance supplies such a light.

Horace E. Scudder.

  1. Sketches of the History of Christian Art, iii. 270.
  2. Legends of the Madonna, Part III.