The Scandal of God Incarnate

When Max Ernst first displayed The Blessed Virgin Chastising the Infant Jesus in 1926, the citizens of Cologne were aghast. The public outcry was such that the archbishop closed the exhibition in which the painting was held and proceeded to excommunicate Ernst before a large crowd gathered in the cathedral, among whom were the artist’s parents.[1] A reproduction of the image appeared as an antireligious manifesto in La Revolution surréaliste that December, but the canvas itself was hidden away only to be uncovered 58 years later for permanent display in the Museum Ludwig, Cologne.[2]

Max Ernst ©Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany
Max Ernst ©Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany

Ernst certainly wanted to shock. A casual examination of the painting is enough to reveal that it deliberately draws its form and content from important Renaissance works, many of which Ernst studied as an art student in Bonn, Germany. The colors and clothing of the Blessed Virgin, for example, immediately recall Raphael’s Madonnas and the bizarre proportions of both figures resemble those in Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck (1530-33). By directly utilizing elements of such paintings, Ernst turns this Christian iconographic tradition on its head, disrupting the harmonious relationship between the Virgin Mother and the infant Christ.[3] Instead of Mary gently cradling her son, she spanks his buttocks with such ferocity that it not only turns the cheeks red, but knocks Christ’s halo to the ground.

The artist and two Surrealist poets coldly observe this scene through a window. Their stiff, solemn faces heighten the overall sense of conspiracy. But, whatever their collective intentions were, Ernst apparently had his own motive. As a child he was made to pose in a nightgown so his father could paint him as the infant Christ giving a benediction from the clouds. Here it seems Ernst challenges this kind of saccharine portraiture, calling into question the Church’s vision of the young savior.[4] Indeed, the painting invites us to ask whether the supposedly sinless child ever acted in a way to provoke a spanking from his mother. In other words, did he do anything wrong?

Of course, the Church has affirmed the sinlessness of the incarnate Christ since its beginnings. The writers of the New Testament make it easy to arrive at this understanding with declarations like “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Heb 4:15 [ESV]).”[5] From the time of St Augustine, Christians in the West have largely understood these statements to mean that Christ assumed an unfallen humanity or that he was in a sinless condition from birth.[6] The doctrine of original sin was especially conducive to this understanding. Its traditional formulations posit that all humans inherit a condition characterized by corruption and guilt brought on by the transgression of Adam and Eve. Inherited corruption consists of a propensity to sin, a disposition that is not in itself actual sin, whereas inherited guilt involves a transfer of guilt originating from Adams’ fall.[7] In recent years, prominent Christian thinkers such as Richard Swinburne and William Wainwright, have rejected the notion of inherited guilt because guilt does not seem to be the kind of responsibility that can be transferred from one person to another.[8] I am not addressing the particulars of this argument here, but I think it is evident that, of the two consequences, inherited corruption is a reality we grapple with every day. But, we might wonder, how does this propensity to sin manifest itself in our experience?

The Virgin and Child (Raphael) ©National Galleries of Scotland
The Virgin and Child (Raphael) ©National Galleries of Scotland

It seems to me that the condition which all humans share from birth is a profound egocentricity. We all begin life with an exclusive focus on our own needs and desires, insisting that these be satisfied instantly. It is only as we mature that we learn to take into account the needs and desires of those around us – our family, our friends, our partners, our children and even our pets. Nevertheless, we still experience powerful urges to place our own interests first, sometimes overwhelmingly so. This inherent egocentricity, a consequence of our fallen condition, continually leads humans to sin. It not only becomes the principle basis for broken human relationships, but also the root cause of our alienation from God.

To claim that God incarnate assumed a fallen humanity would seem counterintuitive, and perhaps, for some Christians, blasphemous! Throughout the history of the Church, many if not most Christians have assumed that Christ needed to take on an unfallen humanity because it seemed that this was the only way he could have led a sinless existence. The inevitable outcome of such thinking, however, is to distance Christ from the rest of humankind, a consequence which is often pictured in the idealism which pervades traditional representations of the infant Christ. Indeed, this puts into doubt the very humanity of Christ, since we all enter the world as egotistic selves which gradually learn to give importance to the needs and desires of others. As Wolfhart Pannenberg remarks, “It is inconceivable that Jesus was truly man, but that in his corporeality and behavior he was not stamped by the universal structure of centeredness of animal life that is the basis of the self-centeredness of human experience and behavior, but which becomes sin only in man.”[9]

Parmigianino ©Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Parmigianino ©Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Not every moment of Christ’s infancy is portrayed in Scripture or, for that matter, in artistic renderings. There are numerous childish actions that are not associated with the growing boy. While this might suggest that, at times, Christ exhibited “naughty” behavior, it is not necessarily to ascribe moral weight to such naughtiness.[10] It is simply to recognize that Christ would have tested his behavioral limits like any other child. According to David Brown, this would be in keeping with Christ’s early formative development, especially as he interacted with his parents. Brown states that “parent-child relations are never entirely smooth, precisely because human identity is formed not only in response to parental example but also in reaction to it.”[11] Luke 2: 48 provides a glimpse of this developmental tension when Mary reprimands her son for failing to inform his parents of his whereabouts. Her question, “why have you treated us so?”, throws into sharp relief the conflict that helped forge Christ’s identity. In fact, a few verses later, the gospel alludes to the importance of this incident with the concluding remark, “And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men (2:52).”

Even if we can imagine Mary disciplining her son on some occasions, Ernst’s painting still seems to go overboard with its depiction of the Christ’s rosy buttocks and halo tumbling to the floor. No doubt, these visual elements contributed to the hostility it garnered when first placed on public display. However, I want to suggest, that this shocking imagery can jolt us out of our theological complacency. The incarnation too often assumes such a familiarity for Christians that we take for granted the scandalous, and yet wonderful implications it entails. Although Christ committed no sin, he was more human than we generally admit. As Hebrews 2:17 clearly states, “he had to be made like his brothers in every respect.” Ernst’s painting prods us to reconsider this truth afresh.


[1] Max Ernst and José María Faerna, Ernst (New York: Cameo and Abrams, 1997), 32.
[2] Elizabeth M. Legge, Max Ernst: The Psychoanalytic Sources (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989); See also 20th Century Art, Museum Ludwig, Cologne (Cologne: Taschen, 1996), 23.
[3] Max Ernst et al., Max Ernst: A Retrospective (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005), 45.
[4] See Mary Dzon, “Joseph and the Amazing Christ-Child of Late Medieval Legend” in Albrecht Classen, Childhood in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: The Results of a Paradigm Shift in the History of Mentality (Walter de Gruyter, 2005); David Brown, Divine Humanity: Kenosis Explored and Defended (London: Baylor University Press, 2011), 214.
[5] Other statements about Christ’s sinlessness are found in Jn 8:46; 2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 2:22, 3:18; Jas 5:6 and 1 Jn 3:5.
[6] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus: God and Man (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 357.
[7] Oliver Crisp, Divinity and Humanity: The Incarnation Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 96-99.
[8] See Richard Swinburne, Responsibility and Atonement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 138; William Wainwright, “Original Sin” in Thomas V. Morris ed., Philosophy and the Christian Faith (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 31-60; Karl Barth also had doubts about inherited guilt. See John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Moral Thought (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1998), ch. 4.
[9] Pannenberg, Jesus, 362.
[10] Brown, Divine Humanity, 213.
[11] David Brown, Discipleship and Imagination: Christian Tradition and Truth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 284.


  • Caleb Froehlich completed his MLitt in the Institute for Theology, Imagination & the Arts (ITIA) at the University of St Andrews. Currently, he is beginning his PhD research in ITIA.

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