With the winter holiday season coming to a close, it is time to look forward to a new year, and perhaps a new home for an exciting historical acquisition. Last November, the Loyola University Museum of Art (LUMA) launched its eighth annual exhibition showcasing nativity scenes from around the world. However, a rather unique object stood among the works more typically displayed in Art and Faith of the Crèche. Greeting guests from inside a vitrine as they entered the exhibit space was a 42 cm tall statuette of the infant Christ. LUMA hopes to raise the donations necessary to acquire this object, with senior curator Jonathan P. Canning saying, “I envision it exhibited at the beginning of the annual crèche exhibition, connecting it to the D’Arcy [Collection of medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art] on the floor above.”
While the figure of the infant Christ is certainly an aesthetically pleasing piece deserving of presentation in an art museum, it is also a rich historical artifact. Beneath its charming visage lies a complex story of expansive international commerce throughout medieval Europe. Moreover, this remnant of material culture reveals how medieval Christians, particularly women religious, could intimately exercise their devotion.
This figurine was crafted by an unknown sculptor in Mechelen (known as Malines in French). In the fifteenth century, the Flemish city’s workshops began producing altarpieces composed of male and female saint dolls. By the first quarter of the sixteenth century, though, Malines dolls of the infant Christ in particular took on enhanced religious and commercial dimensions as they were heavily sought after by European nunneries. Scholars Mary Dzon and Theresa Kenney assert how the medieval period brought about greater fascination with the dual nature of the Christ Child as a vulnerable human and deity on Earth. They state:
When medieval Christians experienced representations of the boy Jesus, they did not just see a pretty child, but a person who was the most important being in the universe – God, in fact, an uncreated spirit of unimaginable power who deigned to undergo the indignities of infancy and childhood, but who by doing so became as approachable as any newborn baby.
Given this context, it should not be surprising why infant Christ figures garnered such widespread appeal, especially among women of the cloth.
Although often attributed solely to Mechelen artists, Malines dolls actually required collaboration between various craftspeople across early modern Belgium. Multiple markings on some surviving Malines dolls demonstrate that carving could be completed in Mechelen itself while polychromy could be applied in Brussels. In the midst of this artistic collusion, the dolls nevertheless managed to maintain a surprisingly uniform design. The naked Christ Child was almost always carved of walnut and stood between 12.5 and 45 cm tall (with some rare exceptions). Additionally, the figure assumed the iconic pose of the Salvator Mundi – His right hand raised with the thumb and two fingers extended in blessing and His left hand carrying some object. This object seems to be the area where variation was most prevalent in Christ Child figurines. Contemporary German interpretations featured birds and fruit while globes and globus cruciger were also quite common.
As for the use of Malines dolls, many art historians have investigated their acclaim as devotional objects in convents across Europe. Medieval nuns viewed themselves as successors to the Virgin Mary; thus, caring for a representation of Christ allowed them to emulate the caring sprit of their primary patroness. Strong evidence of maternal intimacy appears on the Malines doll at LUMA. According to Canning, “The paint and plaster has been rubbed from his fingers, toes, and mouth.” Furthermore, examination under a blue light reveals non-original polychromy present on the arms and legs. The infant Christ, therefore, exhibits the most wear on the parts of the body where a loving caregiver might cradle and play with a real baby.
While much can be learned from examining the unclothed infant Christ, another regular form of devotion was dressing the figures in grandiose garb befitting Jesus’s regal nature. These kingly Christs could then be placed in personal worship spaces like the private gardens that abounded across Mechelen until the start of the seventeenth century. Malines dolls also gained greater use during the Christmas season. They played parts in personal nativity scenes acted out by nuns and were revered as they were wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in ornate cradles. The importance of such celebrations is supported by the evidence of just how far these dolls traveled. Such statuettes existed in every Catholic European country and many of their colonies.
One of the most venerated surviving examples of a vested infant Christ is the Santo Niño de Cebú, originally gifted to the rulers of the island of Cebú by explorer Ferdinand Magellan. This figure has gone so far as to gain papal recognition, and continues to be an important icon for Filipino Catholics today. Similarly clothed figurines reside in museums across Europe, including one elegantly adorned Malines doll at the Staatliches Museum Schwerin in Germany.
Most surviving Malines dolls, however, no longer possess their expertly crafted clothing. Perhaps the most prominent example is the Infant Jesus of Mechelen currently preserved at the Louvre. This statuette exhibits undeniable signs of age with its deteriorating gilding much like the gilding Canning identified in trace amounts on the infant Christ at LUMA. Nevertheless, it is a popular attraction at the Louvre considered to be a kind of twin to the Santo Niño de Cebú. Other uncovered infant Christ figures can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg. The latter is noteworthy not just for its craftsmanship, but for its prodigious size measuring the full length of a newborn baby. Once it acquires the Malines doll it recently had on display, though, LUMA will be the first institution in Chicago to possess such an artifact, a treasure for art lovers and medievalists alike.
For this post, I consulted Painted Wood: History and Conservation, a collection of articles free to access from the Getty Conservation Institute. Also helpful for providing historical context was the 2012 anthology The Christ Child in Medieval Culture: Alpha es et O! edited by Mary Dzon and Theresa Kenney. LUMA is open to the public on Tuesdays from 11 am to 8 pm and Wednesdays – Sundays from 11 am to 6 pm. For information on ticket prices and upcoming exhibitions, visit their website here.
– Michael J. Albani