The Art of Theology: Honthorst 1620


“Childhood of Christ” by Gerrit van Honthorst, circa 1620. Wikipedia Commons.

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!


The Art of Theology: Seligmann 1888

We must ask, what does the art suggest to us?

What does it communicate about Him, speaking from a particular time and place?

What does it evoke through use of light and shadow, contrast and composition?

The Holy Family Image

“The Holy Family”, by Austrian painter Adelbert Franz Seligmann in 1888. The Church and the Fine Arts, Maus, 1960.

Through his painting “The Holy Family”, Adelbert Seligmann pries into the secret, unrecorded years of youthful Yeshua, depicting a scene in which He stands absorbed in thought in the midst of the family’s carpentry. It is a pensive, somber moment, heavy with potential energy; visual tension. The viewer is made to ask: what has captured His mind so? It is a family scene, softened by the presence of two other figures. Joseph is aged, Mary is hidden by shadow, and together they watch their son in quiet curiosity. He is growing, changing, before their eyes… a tender, young plant.

He wears white–purity, innocence, peace. It is a simple, single-layered garment, without dye and seemingly coarse. He is unprotected–He does not wear armor to shield Himself from humanity. He may be easily embraced… or wounded. Nor does He wear sandals. He has come as one of us, a creature first formed bare, out of clay–and to this He bears witness, connected to the earth without division.

He holds a scroll–does it contain words about the promised {and present} Messiah in body? The beams {and the nails} in the foreground do. They lay already crossed–dry beams prophesying of His coming suffering and separation. In the background, there is also a basin–does it speak of cleansing? The cleansing that He would bring, and is in Himself?

The shades of gradient that make up His youthful form in every way contrast Joseph, as a photograph’s negative. White garment v. dark garment, face in the light v. face in shadow, youthful hair v. the white hair of age… Figure casting shadow v. figure in shadow. He is different from His earthly father Joseph in every way, yet still belonging to him.

Seligmann’s “The Holy Family” shows Him to be both one of us and wholly other, a visual answer towing behind it many other questions through the waters of theological painting.

Did He imagine He heard a faint, heavenly refrain’s echo as He walked home from the synagogue that day?

Was He contemplating all that laid before Him, feeling the weight of it more every passing day?

Was His infinite knowledge somehow becoming increasingly known to Him, the Father revealing more to Him in moments like this?

The time period of the painting may reveal: Why is Mary so hidden and shadowed from the light, from the viewer, her face barely traceable? Perhaps it is evidence of a protestant desire to cloak this Mary who has been so heralded and visible in the Roman Catholic iconography. Perhaps too, the prominent cross beams {they are closest to the viewer in the foreground} are residual from the Roman Catholic theme of the visible cross, always connecting Jesus to solemnity and His death.