Mysterious, poignant, foreboding… Such is the atmosphere of Honthorst’s Childhood of Christ. Four figures portray four personalities, and a single candle has a presence of its own.
Joseph: haloed, aged, transfixed. He looks not at his working hands and tools, but at the flame of a candle held by his son. His face shows the wonderment, wisdom, and waiting of old age; he looks as though he is beholding something truly beautiful, something that he cannot, and will not, ever quite grasp.
Jesus: serious, patient, determined. He holds the candle to aid his father’s eyes in the evening dark, but his expression shows us that he is illuminating more than just carpentry. He is robed in red. Red speaks loudly of status, and often, sin. He bears both as the child of man and of God. He needs no halo; his face is the brightest area in the room.
Child on the left–speculating, jeering, scoffing. This sibling of His points and raises an eyebrow, smirking. This child represents all those throughout Jesus’ lifetime who will do the same, and worse.
Child on the right–concerned, understanding, troubled. This sibling raises a hand in apprehension, as if to help. There will be those who love Jesus as he grows older, but they will each feel his pain as the price of their love.
Jesus, the darling oldest, is portrayed as solid and sturdy; he already seems set in strength and peacefulness. He is already much more to his father Joseph than only a clever, helpful boy. Joseph gazes at newness–he is still learning from this promised youth. Their demeanors portray a reversed pupil-teacher relationship. Compare each of their left hands juxtaposed in the center: both hold an object in a fist. Jesus holds a candle, the painting’s only light source, which points towards heaven. Joseph holds a chisel, a tool for working the fruit of the earth, pointed down. These objects show what each has been to each other from the Genesis–God is ever enthroned in light and eternity, and man keeps the earth from which he was made. The bodies of elderly Joseph and young Jesus show the reversal, the paradox, of the Incarnation. Born within a family, born into weakness, born into frailty is the Lord Most High, in order to be one with us–Eternal Spirit forever united to beloved creations of flesh and blood.
Oh praise to the One who took all of our humanness into heaven,
our very selves into Himself,
so we may be made one with God!