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What Child is *This*?

Medieval artists had a standard repertoire of scenes from the life of Jesus to reproduce in churches and personal religious items. Events clustered at two poles: his birth, and his resurrection after crucifixion. Stories of the childhood of Jesus follow ancient, pagan traditions of miraculous birth (e.g., Osiris, Isaac, Aphrodite, Athena, and Zoroaster, to name a few), and endangered infancy (Zeus, Moses, Joseph). Aside from his discourse with the Jewish elders, his childhood and adolescence are lacunae in the gospels included in the New Testament. There are three main infancy gospels which have some stories of the early life of Jesus, but they were demoted as apocrypha or heresy by the Church.


Young Jesus Taming Lion Cubs


All of this is prologue to presenting to you the little-known Tring Tiles, which you can find on display in both the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum. They're dated to about 1330, but their original placement is unknown (possibly a small parish church in Tring). They were discovered in a curiosity shop in Herefordshire in the mid-nineteenth century. Without context, scholars can only speculate about their intended audience, the artist, and whether they were used for some ritualistic space. They interest me for two reasons: they give a window into medieval concepts of childhood, and, they may have been humorous to their creator and his intended audience.


Interpreting humor from the distance of centuries is a risky venture. Jokes are subjective even within the same day and culture. Add to this the probability that this was religious art for a religious space, and it's easy for a modern scholar to be hesitant to explain the tiles as irreverent. Medieval Christianity did have spaces for humor--most notably in mystery plays. The Tring Tiles seem to me to be gently humorous because their subject matter is mostly how unsettling the combination of omnipotence and childhood mischief would be.


The image which begins this post, interpreted by curators at the British Museum, shows Jesus taming lion cubs, and mixes the familiar (a child not obeying his parents) with the symbolic. The lion is a symbol of Christ's royalty and nobility, and here, the cubs are as rambunctious as the child, Jesus. The adults in the scene (Joseph and Mary are behind their son) are alarmed. Their raised hands make a warding or forbidding gesture. Jesus appears to be taming the cubs with one hand, and protecting the adults with the other. His serious face and halo suggest his divine nature, but he's definitely drawn and dressed as a child, not a mini-adult.


A Father Locks Up his Son in a Tower to Prevent Him from Playing with Jesus; Jesus Miraculously Helps Him Escape


Jesus acts in a willful way here, defying a father's wishes so that he can play with his friend. The artist seems to imagine what a child would do if he had infinite power. There's no theological seriousness that I can detect; Jesus here is a young rascal. I'm reminded of the Calvin and Hobbes comics, with their fantasy of a child with adult vocabulary and motivations. Indeed, the tiles appear much like modern comics (although their inspiration is probably the conventions of manuscript pages). As in modern comics, a kind of origin story for a hero is being depicted. It has the effect of promoting affection for Jesus, not just worship, encouraging the viewer to relate to their god from their own experience of being a child (or a parent). This may not be as unusual as it might seem to a modern audience. Thirteenth and fourteenth century English mystics contemplated serving Jesus as a mother, in a kind of imitatio Mariae.


While images of Jesus as unapproachably divine, royally authoritative, or as heroically suffering beyond human endurance have been important representations for the clergy and in churches, the laity were at times encouraged to imagine a personal, relatable Jesus. So, the tiles, like comics, may be more for a lay audience than something to be considered sacred or high art.


Jesus Kills Childhood Friend Disrupting His Pools; His Mother Makes Him Revive the Friend

The British Museum interprets this tile as a two panels of one vignette (as are most of the others): Jesus is creating pools in the River Jordan, his friend disrupts one and Jesus kills him (which is why the friend is shown upside down). Then, Mary chastises Jesus, making him restore the friend to life, apparently by touching him with his foot. How striking to depict Jesus as killing out of childish irritation, and then resurrecting because his mother told him to! If I'm not over-reading, Jesus' face looks to be grimacing in both images. The compassion highlighted in the New Testament's story of him raising Lazarus is not on offer here. The representation of Mary (always with her crown) as tempering her son's rambunctiousness may be associated with the Cult of Mary. The cult was also interested in apocryphal stories of her. Medieval concepts of childhood vary greatly from modern ones, but in these tiles, the humor seems to hinge on understanding that parenting can be exasperating, even if you're the Queen of Heaven.


A Boy Falls Dead from having Playfully Jumped on Jesus; Two Women tell Joseph to Make Jesus Fix What He Did


Mary isn't the only one who has to discipline Jesus. In these scenes, we see Jesus at school, striking dead (again with the upside-down posture representing death) a classmate who rough-houses with him. In the following panel, Joseph instructs, at the behest of dead boy's relatives, that Jesus resurrect his classmate. In this scene, there's an adult social world that can assert itself against divine power, while the wielder of that power is young. It seems to suggest here that secular authority's hold is somewhat tenuous, but manages to sustain its grip. For all that the orthodox stories of Christ show him questioning and at times defying authority, they also have him referring to his power as in obedient service to his father--God. While these tiles are imaginative in a way that doesn't reproduce official Scripture, they don't cross a threshold into mocking it.


Jesus is Slapped by his Teacher; Jesus Stuns His Teachers by Healing the Sick

In these two scenes, there's a playful juxtaposition, but it also makes a religious point. Jesus' teacher (Levi, according to the British Museum--we know he's Jewish by his pointed hat) disciplines him. It may have something to do about the book he's holding--punishment for contradicting Jewish teachings, perhaps? Jesus is shown again to the right of the scene, in the same frame, using oratory gestures for speaking.


In the next panel, his teachers are learning from him, with (again, according to the British Museum) his evidence of his superior wisdom demonstrated in a miracle of healing the infirm behind him. So, the (probably) common experience of being corrected abusively by a teacher is met with the revenge fantasy of showing them up. The theological point may be one of the superiority of Christian wisdom to Jewish teachings, or that divine grace is more powerful than human knowledge.


A Beam for a Plow is Cut Badly; Jesus Repairs the Beam; the Plow Works Beautifully

(apologies for the weird glass glare)




The other end of the fantasy of what an omnipotent child can do to get into trouble is what an omnipotent child might do which would be useful to adults. In the scenes above, a common problem is solved by a child who can fix human mistakes. Much like the infants Hercules and Paul Bunyan, this story of Jesus takes his super-human powers and spins a yarn about them. Like other tiles, it toes a line between irreverent humor and orthodox fantasy. The story imagines him among regular folks, where his powers show him to be divine, but still on a human scale. And, significantly, without addressing the usual sadness and tragedy associated with his human incarnation.


The Wedding at Cana


Only one of the Tring Tiles depicts a story found in the New Testament. Because the tiles were broken from their original wall (or floor), the intended sequence of the scenes is not known. It would make sense if this were the final one, for it appears to show Jesus all grown up, and restored to the official narrative. The wedding at Cana is the first (adult) miracle Jesus performs in the gospels. It fits with the other scenes in that it is a story of a mundane affair with a not-epic problem solved by Jesus as a guest among lay people. Symbolically, it works to show him as a god attentive to people of all statures, and it shows him as compassionate to human dilemmas. As with the other tiles, there's no reference to his ultimate sacrifice and the sorrow of his mother.


So, what child *is* this? A mischievous child to be loved, a nascent deity, indulgently laughed at. One whose importance is foreshadowed, but whose future suffering is set aside. The nineteenth-century lyrics of the song I'm riffing on in my title point to the paradox of a Jesus both vulnerable and all-powerful, and this was an important theological point from the gospels through the Middle Ages and beyond. These visual vignettes depart from the official story, but are faithful to that paradox. The Tring Tiles are a rare survival of local, modest art which added its own stories of how the divine might appear in daily experiences, with a gentle, affectionate touch.




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