In case of some artworks something just went wrong, in spite of the artist’s good intentions. There are some artworks that may just be summed up with one sentence: “what has been seen cannot be un-seen”. I believe that this is exactly the case: a sculpture from the Holy Spirit Church (Heilig-Geist-Kirche) in Rothenburg ob der Tauber. At first, especially when we look at it in certain angle, it seems that it depicts God licking (!?) naked Baby Jesus!
Depictions of licking Baby Jesus, surprisingly, have some precedence in the medieval art, although it was not God who was licking. In fact it was an ox and an ass in some Nativity scenes: a very good example of that is a miniature from St Albans’ Psalter (1 half of the 12th c., Dombibliothek in Hildesheim).
We can see tightly wrapped Baby Jesus placed in a stone manger looking like a tomb; that is a prediction of future Jesus’ Passion. And so the Body of Christ, placed in a manger/tomb, is also a Eucharist, given to all the humans to eat. Ass and ox symbolise Jews and pagans, and they are all invited to eat the Bread that becomes the Body of Christ. Nevertheless, in this miniature Baby Jesus does not seem to enjoy being licked by the donkey and the ox.
In case of the sculpture from Rothenburg it is a different story though. Some time ago I have written about a motif that is called Puer Parvulus Formatus: a small Baby Jesus flying towards Mary in the scene of Annunciation (post available HERE). It was popular in the late medieval art and it was supposed to show that the Annunciation was also a moment of Incarnation. However, if someone wanted to be really precise in depicting the theological intricacies of the moment, the final result may have been rather weird… for example, there is a depiction of Annunciation in one of the tympanums in Marienkapelle in Würzburg (15th c.), with Baby Jesus coming down from God’s lips on some kind of slide, which ends up with a Dove of Holy Spirit aiming to Mary’s ear.
And so everything is clear: the Incarnation is completed by the whole Holy Trinity: God the Father, Baby Jesus and Holy Spirit. Mary gets pregnant thanks to the Holy Spirit and through her ear, because it happened when she heard the Angel’s greeting and replied. Christ is a Word of God who becomes Flesh, and that it why he comes from the God’s mouth. We may actually assume that the slide is in fact God’s tongue!
And now we may get back to our curious sculpture from Rothenburg: God is not licking Baby Jesus in it, but that Baby Jesus comes from his mouth, being a Word that became Flesh. That Baby Jesus is going down on the rainbow towards Mary, as it is in fact the depiction of Annunciation. It is a late-14th c. decoration of a tabernacle.
We must admit though that even if the theological intentions were good in this case, the final result is not so good at all. When I see Annunciation like that, I no longer wonder why the Council of Trent banned the motif Puer Parvulus Formatus.
I thank Mr Andrzej Dzikowski for the inspiration for this post and for the photos of tabernacle from Rothenburg ob der Tauber.