“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” – Romans 8:22
Every year when Christmas rolls around, familiar images of the season make their appearance. In the midst of our holiday fervor, when we remember the importance of the “real meaning” of Christmas, our minds may seize upon images of the Nativity, imagining the baby Jesus lying in his manger and lovingly venerated. Most people see Christmas as the celebration of an individual birth at a certain moment in history, accompanied by portrayals of the Holy Child in churches and on Christmas cards. These images have their place in the religious education of children. Yet for adults, visualizing the meaning of Christmas in this way often only helps reinforce a limited understanding of what the occasion can mean for us.
Mature Christianity recognizes Jesus’s birth as symbolic of Christ Consciousness awakening in the world. This birth is ongoing, continually recurring and available to everyone. Finding myself traveling the corridors of Christian iconography to examine other ways the infant Jesus has been pictured, my attention has been drawn to the premodern period of the Middle Ages, when his image abounded in the typology of the Virgin and Child. After having recognized the occasion of Christmas as a celebration of our own birth in Christ, I discovered that these images provide a powerful point of reference for this idea.
I had always been intrigued by the way Mary and Jesus were portrayed together in Medieval paintings compared with the images and re-enactments of today. These early examples do not present Mary as an affectionate mother nor Jesus as an adorable baby. In fact, he appears as a miniature adult, even having features that suggest aging. Returning to these paintings after having discovered the mystical path in the Christian tradition during my own middle age, I found them to be an uncanny mirror. Here were middle-aged men in the form of the Christ Child, populating icons and altarpieces throughout Europe for centuries. Looking more deeply, I eventually came to recognize these representations as symbolic of the process by which we give birth to the sacred within ourselves.
In Matthew 18:3 Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In scripture, the innocence of childhood is symbolic of the pure nature of awareness that allows us to walk with Christ. However, in terms of human development, while the infant is the quintessential symbol of innocence, it lacks self-awareness. As it develops into a child the layers of ego begin to cloak that original state in the process of adapting to the demands of the world. The higher consciousness, which can be thought of as clarity and purity in the mature adult, comes with gradually freeing one’s true self from the ego, while growing in spiritual wisdom. This begins to occur for many of us in what Richard Rohr calls “the second half of life.” Is this not the stage represented by the miniature adult appearing as baby Jesus? Hybrids of infant and grown man, these figures are nondual: not either/or, but both/and. They embody the attainment of pure mind and heart in mid-life. Simultaneously wise and pure, they can be seen as visualizations of the birth of Christ Consciousness in one who has come home to rest in their true self after a long journey outward.
The way we visualize the Christ Child is rooted in Renaissance depictions, when an emphasis on naturalism along with the discovery of classical Greece meant a move away from the abstraction of the Medieval period into the beauty of ideal forms. The unique infants to which I refer came prior to this. Throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, Christ was thought to be immutable and unchanging and was thus given the features of a fully formed adult. These images of the infant Jesus are now referred to as homunculi: Latin for “little men”. We might suppose that those worshipping in front of an altar felt a sense of comfort offering their prayers to a figure that appeared more like a tiny but wise philosopher than a helpless baby.
What does it mean to leave behind the modern pictures that tell a narrative of Christ’s birth out there, and engage with these premodern images that had originally been meant for meditation? We find that through these earlier paintings our attention is drawn inwards to the true location of the birth of Christ. These adult children symbolizing pure states of consciousness could even be fitting symbols for what the Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind”.
During the 1360s, the Genoese painter Barnaba da Modena painted a “Virgin and Child” as the central section of a multi-part altarpiece. In it, the Christ Child is held by the Virgin in the crook of her arm as he leans in, gazing intimately at her. Mary bends her head towards him as she directs her eyes sternly toward the viewer in an image which exhibits many of the common features of Medieval icon painting. Symbolism takes precedence over the depiction of physical traits- there’s that adult infant again, appearing a bit stocky, perched upon his mother and offered as a display. Mary’s figure is elongated and her right hand, helping to balance the infant, appears like a giant fork. The figures are tightly joined, making up one unit, the curving line of the infant’s shoulder overlapping and replacing that of his mother’s as his left leg glides through the folds of her mantle. Typical of Medieval depictions, Jesus’s body is embedded within Mary’s, but the compositional choices the painter made emphasize the effect. Both figures form an interdependent system emphasizing the relational aspect of the sacred.
How is Mary’s role in this process signified pictorially? Through her simple humility and surrender to God’s grace, she is the model for a self-emptying which is necessary for the birth of Christ Consciousness. Her elegant stature, monumental and solemn, speaks to her exalted state. Her dominance in the space of the painting, surrounded by gold and draped in delicate, finely embroidered fabric, adds to her regal presence. Her head and that of the infants are joined in a mutual inter-being, punctuated by overlapping nimbuses. In the mirroring of hands and the tightness of the composition, the painting seems to insist on the inextricable dependency of both parts of the spiritual equation. Mary provides both support for the new birth signified by this delicate being resting within her, and the conduit for its possibility.
The painting can thus serve as a schema for mystical experience. The Virgin is indicative of the condition that births God into the world, the Holy Child is our attainment of spiritual enlightenment, and love is the movement of interconnectedness between the two states. Images of this type encouraged worshippers to enter them and participate in a sacred unfolding. Such artworks were a world away in both form and function from the imaginings of the Holy Family that would come later: those that would cast us as spectators in a historical event outside our time and place.
Although Barnaba’s “Virgin and Child” may be far from the sweet, nurturing images of Mary and Jesus we know so well, it offers us a place in the story as participants in the miracle of divine birth. The infant Jesus is also us, and Mother Mary represents the compassion we must wrap ourselves inside of to sustain our connectedness to the sacred. Our celebration of the birth of Christ deepens when we bring the miracle back from a distant and imagined Bethlehem to wherever we happen to be and recognize the event that is eternally ours to experience.