I love the baby

In the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands.

'The Glorification of the Virgin' by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (most likely) is an astonishing painting, oil on wood panel, that dates to the late 15th century (my Oxford History of Art book, which has this on the cover, gives the date as c. 1480, but the current estimate seems to be the period 1490-1495). The surface has myriad cracks, which in an odd way add to the picture's charm, and certainly to the sense of its antiquity. But honestly, I don't think I've ever seen a more charming and delightful Mother-and-Child picture, not only because of their context -- luminous celestial rings of angel musicians and symbol-holders, a crescent moon to buoy the Madonna up and a little black devil snipping uselessly at her feet -- but also because the faces of both Mary and Jesus are tender, beautiful, innocent, and unfussy in their rendering.

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Both mother and child have heads shaped like eggs: if you had to make an egg into a human, this is how you would do it. Even Mary's mantle has much the shape of an egg (with a couple of forward folds like supports to keep the egg upright!). Mary has a wonderful crown: a delicate filigree affair in several colours -- the suggestion of gold, pearls, and enamel for the crown itself, though this is a heavenly crown and has a fairytale character: it has twelve stars, per biblical description. The crown sits atop a cushion of roses (we are told). There are five white roses (how can they count them? -- they look like compressed balls of cotton) for each red one. This is supposed to represent the order of prayers -- five Ave Marias (Hail Marys) and then a Paternoster (Our Father) -- but even if the painting makes reference to the rosary, is it not possible that the number five refers as well to Mary's 'five joys', which are described memorably in the Middle English poem, Sir Gawain And The Green Knight? Just a thought. (The poem is about a century earlier than the painting.)

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But in particular, of all the many lovely elements of this picture, what I love best is the baby. He is not the fattest baby Jesus you've ever seen -- one that's already eaten too many pies -- but he's not a stick-figure either. There are photos of me as an infant that look rather similar: a foreshadowing of slimness in maturity. Anyway, the baby squirms and kicks playfully, and reaches out one hand with his 'toy', apparently an open-bottomed bell -- while his other hand holds a second bell out in front of his ear, to be looked at and listened to with interest. This is a baby Jesus not aware so much of his impending doom as of the pleasures of being alive. Even Mary seems to be gazing not just at her son but also at the bell he holds out, as he tinkles along with the music of the heavens (don't forget the angels in the periphery, one of whom rings bells just like the baby's).