Baby Jesus on the Rocks

October 10, 2011

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin of the Rocks, c. 1483-86 (Louvre, Paris)

I’m lecturing on this painting in two separate classes this week, so I thought I might spend a little more time with it today. The painting ought to be sweet—a young Mary with two chubby babies and an angel—but instead it leaves the viewer (well, me) with a strong sense of foreboding. I want to explore that a little.

Let’s start with the setting. It’s a natural grotto, of sorts, but Leonardo does not paint a cozy shelter here. This is a dark and mysterious place, and this little group seems particularly vulnerable here. The landscape itself seems to threaten them from every side. Even the ground in front of them drops off steeply—how far it goes, we do not know, but that baby seems dangerously close to the edge.

Who is that baby? I like that Leonardo doesn’t make it automatically clear. You might guess that the baby under Mary’s arm is Jesus (that’s a very motherly gesture, after all), but it’s not him. That is the infant John the Baptist. The other baby is Jesus, identifiable by the gesture of blessing he extends toward baby John, who is kneeling in response. They are only babies, but their toddling movements even now mark the true nature of their relationship.

So it is Jesus that sits so close to the edge. What’s more, he seems off-balance. It looks like he is pushing off with his left arm, but his feet are crossed and his momentum seems to be propelling him down toward us. It is easy to imagine him toppling over the edge. Mary’s gesture can be understood in a number of ways, but today I wonder if she is reaching out to take hold of Jesus and scooch him away from the edge. Her face may be calm, but her hand seems charged or dynamic. Perhaps she, too, senses just how vulnerable he is.

How often do we think about the vulnerability of baby Jesus? Don’t we often take story of salvation for granted? God came into the world as a baby, and then he grew up and saved the world. True, but perhaps we should stop a minute and ponder that the entire plan of salvation rested on a baby—an exposed, little baby in a big, dangerous world. Maybe it is because I have a toddler myself that I am acutely aware of how many ways a child can hurt themselves or be hurt by others. The dangers are everywhere, and I live in a relatively safe time and place. How much more threatening was the environment around Jesus (especially given Herod’s paranoia)?

Leonardo may be emphasizing the vulnerability of Jesus here, but he also reminds us that Jesus had a host of angels and God the Father himself looking out for him. This angel appears at Jesus side and clutches him under his arm, securing him against a hapless fall. How often will the angels have to protect Jesus as he grows? How often will he face threats of assorted kinds, and even more so because he isn’t just any child, he is the Son of God.

Could that be the meaning of the angel’s gesture? She looks straight at us and she points to John. Perhaps she is explaining to us what is going on here, just in case we’ve missed it. She calls our attention to John because he gets it. He recognizes that this baby is the Messiah. Make no mistake, a lot could happen between now and the culmination of God’s plan for saving the world, but that plan is now underway. Hallelujah. Watch out.

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