Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553)
Christ Blessing the Children, c. 1535 - 40
Oil and tempera on beechwood
83.8 × 121.5 cm
Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
Nicolaes Maes 1634 - 1693
Christ Blessing the Children
Oil on canvas, 206 x 154 cm
National Gallery, London
Benjamin West 1738 - 1820
Christ blessing Little Children
Oil on canvas
116.6 x 214.9 cm
The Royal Academy, London
The works above are based on
‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.’
As well as
'Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven' (Matthew 19:13-14).
"1 Rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, insincerity, envy, and all slander; 2 like newborn infants, long for pure spiritual milk so that through it you may grow into salvation, 3 for you have tasted that the Lord is good." (1 Peter: 2: 1 -3)
Cranach`s painting is one of the most popular and enduring images produced by his workshop during the Reformation. The theme is unknown before Cranach the Elder
Often the painting had a legend in block capitals:
"'VND SIE BRACHTEN KINDLIN ZV IM DAS ER SIE ANRVRETE. MARCVS AM X.'
It is overtly didactic
The theme is distinctly Lutheran: only an unspoiled childish belief in God, as revealed in Christ, can prepare the way for sinful mankind to achieve redemption.
Salvation and grace are free. They are not earned by works or labour.
The figure of Christ is pushed to the front of the picture-plane and the powerfully characterised heads of the Apostles, owe more to Dürer than to Raphael
Also notable are the figures of the women. These are not passive women. They are ordinary women, energetic, forcing their ways forward in wanting their children to be touched by Christ
The children are babies. A subtle or perhaps not too subtle refutation of those who at the time rejected Infant Baptism
Now Catholics can look at and appreciate these works and find inspiration in them
Cranach the Elder was Luther`s PR man. His works were essential to the success of the Lutheran Reformation. He was Luther`s best man at his wedding.
The theme invented by Cranach was popular throughout Northern Europe in the centuries after Cranach as can be seen by the works by Maes and West above.
However it is worth pointing out at the same time as he was producing such didactic works and maintaining good relations with Luther and his family, Cranach had good professional relations Catholic patrons, including Luther's bête noire, Cardinal Albrecht, the archbishop of Mainz. He and his workshop produced typically "Catholic" pictures. These are not pot boilers but works of great spiritual depth
In his time there was always hope on both sides that the Lutherans and the rest of the Catholic Church would eventually reunite. The split was not at that time irrevocable.
Indeed Cardinal Albrecht had even sent Luther's bride a wedding gift.
But perhaps the importance of Cranach and his work is a sign that although art can be used to highlight differences and schisms, art can also transcend differences of theology and unite and bridge differences between people of different faiths or of no faith
Cranach`s message is still a strong one. But it is not just an image. It is a call to make the image real. Cardinal Dolan of New York in his talk to the College of Cardinals
made this clear in this, the Year of Evangelisation:
"[T]he New Evangelization is about love.
Recently, our brother John Thomas Kattrukudiyil, the Bishop of Itanagar, in
the northeast corner of India, was asked to explain the tremendous growth of the
Church in his diocese, registering over 10,000 adult converts a year.
“Because we present God as a loving father, and because people see the Church
loving them.” he replied.
Not a nebulous love, he went on, but a love incarnate in wonderful schools
for all children, clinics for the sick, homes for the elderly, centers for
orphans, food for the hungry.
In New York, the heart of the most hardened secularist softens when visiting
one of our inner-city Catholic schools. When one of our benefactors, who
described himself as an agnostic, asked Sister Michelle why, at her age, with
painful arthritic knees, she continued to serve at one of these struggling but
excellent poor schools, she answered, “Because God loves me, and I love Him, and
I want these children to discover this love. ...
[A]s a newly-ordained parish priest, my first pastor said to me as I went over to
school to teach the six-year old children their catechism, “Now we’ll see if all
your theology sunk in, and if you can speak of the faith like a child.”
And maybe that’s a fitting place to conclude: we need to speak again as a
child the eternal truth, beauty, and simplicity of Jesus and His Church"