It is very difficult, today, for the ordinary, defensive and suspicious human being to understand Christ’s radical vulnerability, from his conception to his death on a cross.
However, the mysterious Fra Angelico (literally, “the Angelic Friar”), a Renaissance painter who also happened to be a renowned mystic, often captured this vulnerability well.1 He is especially celebrated for his renditions of the Child Christ, most famously in his Madonna delle Ombre (“Our Lady of the Shadows”), where a sweet-faced toddler Jesus looks outward, his gaze both knowing and trusting, his rosy cheeks framed by wispy curls.
In the 1400s, when Fra Angelico worked, few artists were so bold as to make the Christ Child truly childlike. Indeed, many a critic has gently mocked the Lilliputian Baby Jesus of the early Renaissance – a miniature adult, lean and poised, perched stiffly on his mother’s lap.
Perhaps it was just too hard to imagine – too wrenching to accept – a God in infant form. Only Fra Angelico, whom one imagines was childlike himself, could embrace the fragility of Christ in the care of his earthly parents. And this tenderness, this disarming guilelessness, came to pervade all of Fra Angelico’s work. Even his adult figures (notice the bearded Evangelists Mark and Luke in the Madonna delle Ombre) have a surprising innocence. There is something earnest and wild in their gentle eyes.
The Madonna delle Ombre is a showpiece, made for a communal space and rich with rare pigments and a profusion of details. It was meant to both instruct and impress, and considerable wealth was likely expended in its making.
Most of Fra Angelico’s paintings, however, are of a humbler sort. A monk in the Florentine monastery of San Marco, Angelico was tasked chiefly with making devotional images for his brothers’ humble cells. These latter paintings, rendered directly on plaster walls beneath arched ceilings, have simpler color palettes and more succinct compositions than his larger tours de force. But all of them have remarkable spiritual power.
In cell five of the austere San Marco monastery, now operating as a museum, Angelico painted a subject rare for him: The Nativity. Here, a rustic stable is nestled in front of a cave mouth, in keeping with early legends.2 An ox and ass placidly eat as tiny angels sing discreetly overhead. Mary and Joseph kneel in reverent, stony, timeless prayer on the ground next to their son. They are like devotional statues in the flesh. Slightly further away, on a tilting diagonal, Sts. Catherine of Alexandria and Peter of Verona (from centuries in the future) pray as well. The scene is airless, sparkling – a moment caught in amber. It seems to hail from a time outside of time, and one imagines it will glow and whisper gently forever.
Most remarkable about this scene, however, is the Baby.
Early Renaissance artists must have puzzled about how to represent the birth of Jesus. Certainly the gospels provided a setting – but how to depict the Baby Himself? Should He be cradled by His mother (as in early versions by Giotto, the first Renaissance artist)? Should He be lying in a manger (as in the work of Giotto’s rival Duccio)? How could artists avoid deflecting attention or implying disrespect? One popular solution was to favor the scene of the Magi’s visit over the Nativity itself. Here, the child Jesus could sit upright, His mother’s lap a throne, as foreign dignitaries brought him expensive gifts. It was a scene befitting a king. In Gentile da Fabriano’s famous version, a symphony of rich patterns and shimmering gold seduce the eye, all made possible by the supposed wealth of the Magi. In the lower left, a distinguished sage in rich brocades kneels on hands and knees before the blessing Babe.
Fra Angelico’s Nativity was made in the same city as da Fabriano’s, about twenty years later. And it continued narrative choices made earlier in the monk’s career, during the time that da Fabriano worked. Fra Angelico would have known of da Fabriano’s grand solution to the problem of the Baby Christ, and he roundly rejected it. His infant Jesus is neither regal nor self-possessed nor lovingly protected, but instead naked, isolated and exposed. He lies on the ground, prone on his back, wriggling on a layer of straw. His feet kick and his arms reach into the cool night air of the humble stable.
There would be no protecting him in the end, after all. There would be no glory and honor, no silk and perfumes. His mother and father would not be able to keep him safe. His friends would run away from Him. Even his Heavenly Father, the heart of his heart, would seem to have turned His face. Fra Angelico’s infant Jesus is exposed like the Crucified Christ would be exposed. And Christ’s infancy, here, makes us feel more deeply the poignancy of his later sacrifice. As a grown man, he was no less innocent than Fra Angelico’s baby. His was ever and always a Child Heart, even when nailed up to die.
The infant Christ’s tender flesh, in Fra Angelico’s Nativity, invites us, this season, to be tender. The God of the universe came as a squalling baby. He smelled bad smells (and produced them!); he got splinters; he encountered bullying (haven’t we all?); and he suffered illness. Though he was a brilliant prodigy with an unfailing nose for truth, he toiled peaceably for years among proud men shouting errors. He may have heard Joseph called a cuckold and Mary a whore.
And worst of all, He saw the work of His Father, from all eons, brought low. For the world itself was His Father’s masterpiece – Their shared masterpiece, springing from Their joined hearts, lavished with love and care. Now here it was, all around the little Christ, in its naked, blank-eyed squalor. But Jesus knew what it could be, and He would die to raise it up.
This Christmas, may I see the beauty of everything that hurts. May I see the flickering glory of people who wound me (whether they mean to or not), of disappointments that are blessings, and of spiritual siblings who seem enemies. May I know that “all things work for the good,”3 just as Christ’s death worked for the good. May I smile upon all with tenderness.
- The birth name of Fra Angelico was Guido di Pietro. When he took religious orders, Fra Angelico became “Fra Giovanni di Fiesole” (Friar John of Fiesole). Even during Giovanni’s lifetime, however, the sobriquet “Angelico” came into use.
- The earliest mention of Christ’s birth in a cave seems to be from Justin Martyr (ca. 150 AD). Historians affirm that caves were sometimes used as stables in 1st century Palestine.
- Romans 8:28