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Homelier Than Thou


By Navid Kermani, from Wonder Beyond Belief, a collection of his commentaries on Christian artwork that was published this month by Polity. This essay concerns the sculpture Christ Child (circa 1320), which is in the collection of the Bode Museum in Berlin. Kermani is a religious theorist and novelist. Translated from the German by Tony Crawford.

The boy is ugly. His mouth, for example, that open mouth; his receding lower and protruding upper jaw; and the lips more so: the lower lip short, or, more precisely, not short, but pressed, extruded into two fat bulges, accompanied by an upper lip pulled upward like a tent on two strings, spreading out sideways to shelter the corners of the mouth. The boy looks stupid with his gaping lips—really stupid, more than just unbecoming: dim-witted, a mean kind of dimwit with something awkward and boorish about him at the same time, something of a spoiled brat thinking only of himself. It is unpleasant, unsavory no less, to imagine a kiss from him, no matter how readily and easily we receive kisses from other children. There are children like that, five-year-olds who still scratch blithely in their unwiped bum crease and hold out their shit to you. This one has lost some paint precisely on the three fingers that he holds up in blessing, from the tips of his fingernails past the second knuckle. At first glance he seems about to stick his bent brown fingers down your throat.

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