Flying Baby Jesus

For my first post, I knew that I needed to introduce myself with what I love most—religious art. I love the varied symbolism, complex history, and common threads you can pull through the imagery of different religions. Ever since I was little, I had an affinity for mythology. Along with my love for religious architecture, that passion quickly bloomed into a love for art history.

Merode Altarpiece, Robert Campin (1427-32)

I’m currently taking a class called Northern Renaissance Art, which gives me the perfect opportunity to talk about one of my favorites pieces! The Merode Altarpiece, painted by Robert Campin in 1427-32, is a triptych depicting the annunciation. It has typical symbolism, but is also packed with odd imagery to tell the story of Mary learning she is about to carry the Christ child. It’s a Netherlandish piece, painted with oil on oak with a vibrant color palette and incredible detail.

Campin has such an interesting command of color and texture, you can really find yourself looking at this piece for hours and still finding new things to marvel at. The left panel depicts the patrons of this piece, kneeling as they look in on this incredible moment within their religion. Some also argue that they’re having a hallucination of this moment, which was incredibly sought after at the time. To them, it meant you were so devoted, that the word of God appeared right in front of you.

They look in on the center panel, which depicts the exact moment that Gabriel arrives. Mary has yet to look up from reading, the book on the table is still catching the wind of Gabriel’s entrance, and the candle on the table is swirling with smoke as if it was just blown out. There is incredible movement within this panel, and the detail and imagery is what makes this my favorite. However, Campin leaves us clues to the future. Mary’s dress is positioned in such a precise way so that the highlights create a star over her womb, and tells us as a viewer that that’s where our attention needs to be. The rest of the piece begins to fill in the gaps.

The right panel holds Joseph, building a mousetrap in his studio. His being in this painting is what starts the odd depiction of this moment. Joseph is definitely not the all important figure here-and usually he’s taken out altogether. But here, we’re reminded of his role in this story. He makes the immaculate conception seem less immaculate; to fool the devil, and protect Christ! He completes the father figure within the family image. 

The architect in me loves this panel—I love getting to see the way the windows worked in Netherlandish homes in the 1400s. But, it also must point out the completely absurd perspective and proportion. If you look at the center panel, you’ll see why. The bench takes up the entire length of the room, and there is no regard for linear perspective. The artist in me, though, thinks it adds to the otherworldly/hallucination effect. 

While I could go on for years and years about the symbolism of the center panel, I don’t want to draw this out for 10 pages! So, let me draw your attention to the strangest (and best) part of this painting. This is a piece of symbolism that is totally out of the ordinary, and isn’t used in any other renditions of the annunciation. If you zoom in towards the windows in the back left of the center panel, you will see flying baby Jesus. Yes, flying baby Jesus. He rides through the air on a cross, carried by seven golden rays of heavenly light. Just as Gabriel enters to tell Mary of her fate, Jesus flies in to collide with her and begin the story. It’s so small and easy to miss, but nevertheless it’s there. Every time I get to talk about this painting, he’s the first thing I bring up. It always gets a chuckle out of anyone I’m talking to, especially if they’re unfamiliar with art history and this altarpiece. I just love to imagine Campin laughing as he paints, and the patrons and viewers smiling at Jesus pulling a Superman to enter the world. I would have loved to hear the discussion on the exact reason this imagery was chosen, but unfortunately we’re all just left to guessing, and appreciating this small, flying baby Jesus, in this incredible work of art. 

Featured Image: Met Museum

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