July 3rd 2021

“Christ in the House of His Parents”, 1849-50, Sir John Everett Millais, Tate Britain

In today’s gospel passage from Mark, the people of Nazareth refer to Jesus as a carpenter.  In Matthew, they refer to him as a carpenter’s son.   In this painting, which was inspired by a sermon, Millais presents us with the carpenter’s shop.   The boy Jesus has just wounded the palm of his hand on a nail. You can see the nail and a blood stain just behind him.  He is showing the wound to his mother, who kneels down beside him.   She gazes at the wound with a look of distress.  Her hands suggest anguished prayer.   

Millais used live models and painted them as he saw them.  In fact, he used members of his family in this painting.  However, there is clear departure from naturalism in this work.  It is not to be found in their physiognomy,  but in the central pose of the mother and child.  She does not touch her child.  She kneels.  He leans towards her.  The odd proximity of both their mouths suggests a symbolism used the Orthodox tradition of icon painting, where Mary and Jesus are shown as sharing the same breath, namely the Holy Spirit.   The bloodied wound of a nail on the boy’s hand, and the blood shed unto his foot, foreshadow his sacrifice on the cross.   Both Mary and Joseph seem to sense the significance of what has just happened.  Joseph leans across and touches the boy’s shoulder.  With his other hand,  he holds back the boy’s fingers as if to contemplate the wound.  In fact, each figure is reacting to what has happened by doing something with their hands.  The older woman, who is surely Mary’s mother, reaches for a pinchers to pull out the offending nail. The young John the Baptist on the left, with his camel hair skirt, is ready for the wilderness. He carries a bowl of water, ostensibly to wash the wound, but also foreshadowing the baptism.  The unidentified assistant on the left stares but is indifferent and carries on working.  The whole scene is full of religious symbols. The more you look the more you see.   The dove perched on the ladder must be a symbol of the Holy Spirit, who descended in the form of a dove after the baptism.  The ladder recalls the crucifixion but it might also recall Jacob’s dream.  The arched window behind in the room to the rear recalls so many annunciations.  To my mind, it is very important not to miss the fact that they are making a door.  The blood stain on the door recalls the Exodus when the Israelites in Egypt were commanded to smear the blood of a lamb on their door posts.  Ancient Christian writers saw in this a type of Christ’s blood, which smeared on the lips of the faithful would make Satan draw back.  Elsewhere in the Christian tradition,  both Christ and Mary were sometimes referred to as doors to heaven.  But the making of the door, might also symbolise the upbringing of Christ entrusted to this household. The eager longing for his coming  is symbolised by the flock of sheep who press against the fence as if waiting for the shepherd to come and feed them.  Again his coming is foreshadowed by the wilderness-clad Baptist, while the manner in which he will feed them is suggested by the wounding of the nail.  

When this picture was displayed at the Royal Academy it was not well received.  Much of the criticism focused on the “meanness” of the figures and the setting.  Classical ruins were usurped by a contemporary carpenter’s shop, known to Millais in London’s Oxford street.  It hit a raw nerve in Victorian sensibility,  but maybe that was the whole point!


Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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