Baby Jesus nativity figure

Baby Jesus

Materials: Polyresin, glass,brass wire, paint
Dimension:  11 centimeters long
Place acquired: Seville, Spain
Place of manufacture:  unknown

One of the theological dilemmas of Christianity has always been how to depict Christ in art. Should he be a lord, a king, serene, abstract and resplendent, or should he be an ordinary mortal, naturalistic, vulnerable, tortured even?

This little model depicts the infant Christ or baby Jesus, and this is a sub-genre that has its own dilemmas. Should the baby Jesus be chubby, tactile, sensual, like a real baby, or should he appear as a miniature adult, wise and fully aware of his status? There are traditions for both approaches, but this one seems to cleverly combine the two. His body is a realistic depiction of a human infant but his hand gestures and his focused, intelligent gaze mark him out as no ordinary baby.

The figure is 11cm head to toe (excluding the halo) but in the shops of southern Spain where this was bought you can buy them in all sizes right up to life size. It is a nativity figure and is part of the western tradition of creating model scenes of the nativity story around Christmas time. In Spain the tradition is particularly strong and nativity scenes and tableaux in homes and public spaces can be very elaborate. Supposedly it was Saint Francis of Assisi who created the first ‘living’ nativity scene in the Italian village of Greccio in 1223. And certainly it is the Franciscan tradition that is responsible for this softer more human side of Christian imagery.

The style of the figure is typical of the Spanish version of baroque – a counter reformation style that swept through all of Europe in the 18th century. It was typified by a hyper-realism with a dramatic emotional charge. Traditionally such Spanish pieces would have been carved from wood and painted. This little figure is cast in polyresin but uses other materials, a shiny metal halo and tiny glass inserts for the eyes, which heighten the sense of realism and drama. This multi-media approach is also a classic baroque technique. There is no marking on the figure to give any clue as to where it was made. The style is completely Spanish but in all probability it will have been made in China, for the Spanish market.