One element of my novel The Holy Family, which explores the nature of religious belief and unbelief, is a controversial painting of Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus. In the novel, the painting is the work of the narrator’s daughter, a college student, and it causes a stir on the internet and cable news networks.
I am always interested to hear of outrage over works of art that take “liberties” with religious beliefs and ruffle the feathers of the faithful. Even in the days when I self-identified as Catholic I found these emotional responses to be generally over the top and forgetful of the fact that free speech and expression are part and parcel of a free society with many belief systems, including unbelief. Critique, satire, parody, all have a place in the public conversation.
One controversial painting that tickles me is Max Ernst’s Virgin Spanking the Christ Child before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and the Painter (1926), which is in the collection of Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany. On one level it is simply a funny and strange painting. The perspective is odd, as is the shape of the room, and the naked Christ child is splayed across his mother’s lap, butt cheeks red and his dislodged halo bouncing on the floor. Mary’s right arm is cocked like a that of a quarterback getting ready to throw a long pass, her resolute eyes focused like lasers on the target. The composition—Christ in the lap of his mother—calls to mind the traditional pieta, and the spanking itself may be a reminder of Jesus being scourged by the soldiers on the way to Calvary. The three witnesses, an odd trio of heads at a peculiarly placed window, look on with a detachment that could be interpreted as scorn, approval, or disinterest.
On another level, though, the painting raises serious questions for believing Christians because Jesus, as the Son of God, is God. So: Can God be spanked? Can the child Jesus have done anything that would cause him to deserve punishment? Did Mary really have the authority to chastise God? Does Mary’s intact halo imply that she remains holy despite her action? Does the loss of Jesus’ halo imply that his holiness is diminished? Can God’s holiness ever be diminished?
Questions like these have long preoccupied viewers of the painting. Max Ernst’s father denounced the painting, and the archbishop of Cologne shut down the exhibition at which it first appeared. Surely they did not like the answers to these questions inferred from the painting. John Updike wrote in The New York Review of Books that “this scene cannot be enrolled in Christian iconography—it has no Gospel authority.” Poet Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “The Virgin Punishing the Infant,” written as a response to Ernst’s painting, concludes with the witnesses in the window asking, “But afterwards, we wondered / why the infant did not cry, why the Mother did,” apparently putting the onus of the action on the human Mary and exonerating the “fully human, fully God” child.
I’ve never been one for corporal punishment, but I find it hard to fathom that believing Christians could go through life without ever wanting to give their God a smack upside the head. For many possible reasons: for “allowing” the death of a child or a heinous crime or a tsunami, or for his biblical approval of various genocides, or for endorsing a book that includes the line, “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” That the painting should be considered irreverent is to be expected—that’s a knee-jerk reaction to just about anything traditionalists find the least bit out of the ordinary. Calling it blasphemy, however, as some have done, goes too far.
Updike’s assertion that the image lacks Gospel authority allows for a frame of reference about the size of a postage stamp on a canvas that extends, let’s say, to the size of the Sistine ceiling. Responding in the New York Review of Books to Updike in 2005, art historian Leo Steinberg pointed out a long tradition—in folk tales and songs—presenting Jesus as “a conceited, and frequently even malicious child who uses his miraculous powers for the satisfaction of his whims.” According to a folklorist who provided Steinberg with source material, one such song, dating from the fourteenth century, gives us a Jesus who “curses the tree for providing the switch with which Mary beats him for murdering three young boys. They had refused to play ball with him.”
So, folklore, scripture, dogma, artistic license, tweaking the sensibilities of the faithful: Virgin Spanking the Christ Child, which caused this then-Catholic to guffaw the first time I saw it, continues to delight me even as an atheist. Not because it somehow “mocks” the beliefs of Christians, but because it humanizes—nearly as thoroughly as only death itself can humanize—an icon that has grown so much out of character and proportion with humanity that it can no longer enlighten us.