Baby Jesus in a glass dome

Glass dome baby

Materials: plastic, coral, moss, wood, ribbon, glass
Dimensions: 10 centimeters high
Place acquired: Sicily
Place of manufacture: Erice, Sicily

Real pieces of coral, dried moss to look like seaweed and a strip of scalloped golden ribbon have all gone into dressing this plastic infant Jesus with a marine theme. It’s an ‘aquatic’ baby Jesus, probably part of a patron Bambino Gesù tradition, local to the Sicilian fishing community where this little figure was bought. But for me the most interesting thing about it is the little glass dome that encloses it. As well as all its more obvious, practical uses, glass has always had a clever role to play in the depiction of the divine. It may seem strange to look for such weighty ideas in what, in the end, is just a kitsch religious ornament, but it is clearly there in this little object, so let’s have a look at it.

Glass is something we can see through, but it prevents us from handling what we see. It makes things visible, but inaccessible. All this has many practical uses of course, but in this little object it serves another more metaphorical purpose. It acts as the boundary between our world of the everyday and the world of the 'sacred' , which we cannot be part of. We can look, but we can’t touch.

Depictions of the sacred have always tried to do this in whatever ways were available. Sometimes people would just make use of the landscape. The sacred would be understood to be present in a cave or grotto, or under water, within a special grove of trees, on a raised piece of land, on top of a mountain, or in the sky beyond the clouds. Somewhere that was clearly bounded, somewhere you wouldn’t just blunder across in the course of your daily business. Then of course temple buildings create opportunities for such things as inner sanctums, altars, shrines, alcoves, screens, curtains; any architectural device that can provide a threshold between our everyday world and the divine. It’s so important to us to keep them separate. Small portable shrines or reliquaries use doors, lids, flaps or, crucially, windows.

A window can be just a cavity we can peer into, or a lattice grid of wood or metal, or a polished piece of rock quartz. Or of course, it can be glass. Glass is perfect. It’s completely transparent and we can make it into any shape we like. We can make it beautiful, like a bubble. A bubble of sacredness that we can hold up and gaze into. We can wonder at it, aspire to it, worship it. But it’s separate from us, safe from us. It’s where it should be – just beyond our reach. Like this baby Jesus in his little glass dome.