Today is the Children’s Day, so let’s have a look on a very interesting motif including a child, and more precisely: flying Baby Jesus. When we look at the depictions of the Annunciation, we usually focus on main characters: Mary and the Angel. But if we are dealing with a gothic painting, we should take a closer look, so we might notice that there is a tiny baby with a cross, flying towards Mary!
This is one of the most famous examples: a middle part of so called Mérode Triptych, created in 1430’s in the workshop of a Master of Flémalle, and kept in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I have already written about a right wing of this altar (see the post here). The middle part of this triptych contains a depiction of Annunciation. A tiny Baby Jesus flies in the golden light through the round window towards Mary. This motif is called Puer Parvulus Formatus.
How was that idea created? We don’t know for sure, The earliest survived depiction of that motif comes from Italy and dates back to the beginning of 14th century. And what is it about? Well, it is about the most important result of the Annunciation, that is: the Incarnation. The moment when Mary agreed to take her part in the history of Salvation was also a moment she conceived Jesus. That is why the feast of Annunciation is celebrated on March 25th, which is exactly 9 months before Christmas. The Baby Jesus flying through the window doesn’t break the glass, which refers to the fact that in spite of the conception Mary’s virginity remained intact. And the cross of course predicts future passion of Christ.
It is all very nice, but there is one problem. Such a depiction suggests that Christ was incorporated as a human child somehow beyond Mary’s womb and then “placed” in it. That weird In Vitro is of course an idea absolutely theologically incorrect. Jesus’ body was formed entirely out of Mary’s body, not somewhere outside it. Because of this controversy, Puer Parvulus Formatus was a motif criticized already in Middle Ages, and finally completely banned by The Council of Trent (1545-63). After that time, existing medieval depictions of flying Jesus were just covered with paint.
Nowadays from time to time the restorations of the medieval paintings reveal those small Jesuses in Annunciations. It is always a great joy to find such a thing. Medieval art actually often surprises us with interesting yet not always theologically correct images. I think we might say that Middle Ages was a time of childhood of the Europe: a time of searching and inventing new things, not always obeying all the rules. Today we should wish we always keep in touch with an inner child inside us and never stop being freely creative! 🙂