Readings — From the January 2018 issue

Homelier Than Thou

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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.

And how round he is—not fat in the sense of overweight, but rounded, his nose wider than it is long, his skin rotund like blown-up balloons. His cheeks look all the more spherical because the retracted lower lip lifts up his ball-shaped chin. In total, his face consists of three—no, four—no, _ve balls, because his double chin and the tip of his nose are also globular. The two breasts are likewise round, like a woman’s, I notice, and the fat encircles his upper and lower arms, forming more balls. A cherub, a mother would call him, believing her child the most beautiful on earth even if he is a paragon of hideousness to everyone else, especially an unbeliever or a believer of a different faith, like me. My Catholic friend, whom I asked to go by the Bode Museum on his next visit to Berlin, conceded on the phone that the last thing he would associate with the boy was beauty, grace, charm.

“Did you see his fingers?”

“I’m standing right in front of him,” my friend whispered. He had no trouble finding the boy; he asked the first guard he saw where to find the ugly Christ Child and was shown the way with a grin.

The motif of Jesus as a child did not appear in Catholic art until the thirteenth century, my friend digresses, so the sculpture must be a very early, immature specimen. St. Francis in particular loved the Christ Child, he explains, and female mystics cherished him in contemplation and rocked him in their arms, feeling themselves one with the Mother of God.

“That snotface?” I ask.

“Well,” my friend whispers. The sculptor of this particular piece, he supposes, which is perhaps less propitious to unio mystica, immortalized the features, and probably the dense curls, of his patron, or his patron’s child.

“Aha,” I say, just to say something in reply to his explanation, which doesn’t entirely satisfy me.

The years of Jesus’ childhood, when he was no longer an infant and not yet a youth, are omitted from Pope Benedict XVI’s Infancy Narratives. Benedict describes the annunciation of the birth, the birth itself, the visit of the three wise men, and the flight into Egypt when Jesus was still a baby. Benedict then continues the story only when Jesus is nearing adolescence. There is, however, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Although it was not included in the canon, Christians gave it consideration as a testimony for many centuries.

I always found the Infancy Gospel to be a very realistic text precisely because it is disturbing, because it deviates very unfavorably from the notion we form, believing or unbelieving, of the adult Jesus. For I never found the Infancy Gospel to be logically consistent with the beloved infant and the so fiercely loving later man. Playing on the bank of a stream, for example, the five-year-old diverts its rushing waters into little puddles by the sheer power of his will. A neighbor boy takes a willow switch and sweeps the water back into the stream. The two boys quarrel, and up to here it reads like a normal story: a scene between two boys that could happen in any kindergarten. But then Jesus cries out that the neighbor boy should wither up like a dead tree, never to bear leaves or roots or fruit again. And immediately the neighbor boy withers up completely, which can only mean he dies, he dies a wretched death, plunging his parents into sorrow, as the Infancy Gospel explicitly says. Jesus, unmoved, goes home.

And the account continues, in exactly that style, with those character traits: in the village, a boy running by accidentally bumps Jesus’ shoulder. What does Jesus do? Kill the boy with a single word. And when the parents of this and the other boy, and more and more people, complain to Joseph— what does Jesus do? Strike them all blind. And when his knowledge exceeds that of his teacher Zacchaeus, he makes a laughingstock of the old man in front of everyone; Zacchaeus despairs and wants to die on account of this child, who must be a paragon of hideousness.

Perhaps Benedict XVI, and my Catholic friend along with him, are too spellbound by the beauty they seem to find so important in Christianity, and hence in Jesus Christ, to see the ugliness as well. I understand their persistence; in a city like Berlin I need only attend a simple Sunday service to concur with them that beauty is sorely lacking in Christianity today. Poverty alone can’t make a god great. But beauty can be realized only together with its opposite. Jesus himself said, or is said to have said, in a saying transmitted by the church father Hippolytus, “He who seeks me will find me in children from seven years old.” That would seem to mean that the Savior is not to be found in the five-year-old that the Infancy Gospel describes. It means that even the Son must first become that which, in the canonical tradition, he is from the beginning. Jesus may have been a snotface, a monster of a child, one who possessed miraculous powers yet used them with malice. Malice is an attribute that is ascribed to God, too.

I wonder whether it was not by remembering with shame the loveless child he had been that Jesus became filled with love, ultimately an ecstatic, enthusiastic, understanding man who emphasized the good even in a felon, who praised beauty even in what is ugly. This anecdote is a favorite of the Sufis, and also the one I love best: Jesus and his disciples come across a dead, halfdecayed dog, lying with its mouth open. “How horribly it stinks,” say the disciples, turning aside in disgust. But Jesus says, “See how splendidly its teeth shine!” Jesus might have been speaking not only of the dog but also of the child he used to be.

But the mother—you couldn’t wish it on any mother to have such a son: announced by angels, exalted by kings, and then he turns out to be a spoiled brat brimming with supernatural power. The Infancy Gospel mentions Mary only at the very end, when Jesus is more than seven years old. She must have agonized over him, felt ashamed of his misdeeds, and yet stood by him, loving her cherub unconditionally. That is his mother, the epitome of the mother: no matter how the child is. That is her son, every son, who has to learn love from his mother. I wouldn’t want to cradle this boy in my arms.

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