Today’s advent image is brought to us by English Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais. Titled, Christ in the house with his parents, Millais appears to be following the Pre-Raphaelite tradition of bringing realism into his work, using bright jewel tones to depict this fabulously detailed domestic scene. Set in what appears to be a carpenter’s workshop, we see a young russet-haired Jesus being comforted by his parents after he has cut his hand (presumably on some tool or rough piece of wood in the workshop). This is a very human Jesus, caught in a mundane moment – very different to earlier artistic works which preferred to present Christ in more glorified or esoteric forms.
John Everett Millais, Christ in the house of his parents (1850)
And yet, while the sawdust and blood roots this image of Jesus very much within the earthy realm, Millais also hints at the divinity of Christ through his use of various signs and symbols within the painting. The young chap on the right is John the Baptist (identified by hjs little animal skin skirt), carefully carrying a bowl of water presumably to wash Jesus’ wounds – might this prefigure the gospel tradition of John’s baptism of Jesus (Matt 3.13-17)? Perching on a rung of the ladder that leans against the wall behind Joseph, we see a dove, reminiscent of the spirit of God, which descends ‘like a dove’ upon Jesus once he has been baptised (Matt 3.16). Despite the domestic and very earthly setting of this family, Millais seems to suggest that God is most assuredly in their midst. Meanwhile, Jesus’ wound looks ominously like those wounds he will receive on his hands and feet at the crucifixion; indeed, in his father’s hand we see what looks like a large metal nail, akin to those that will later be driven through Jesus’ flesh into the cross. And speaking of crosses, the workshop is stacked with wooden planks; innocent enough, but they may remind us of the two planks of wood that will be used to construct the cross on which this young redheaded boy will one day die. Yet, in the background of the picture, a flock of sheep bustle forward to see what’s going on in the workroom. Perhaps this is to reassure the viewer, inviting them to recall Jesus’ legacy as the ‘Good Shepherd’ who, despite his death, will remain saviour and messiah for the Christian community.
Thus, Millais’ Christ in the house of his parents is an image that is both poignant and hopeful. At the time of its exhibition, however, it was also controversial. Its domestication and humanising of Jesus and the holy family was considered blasphemous by some viewers, most notably Charles Dickens, who was particularly affronted at the ugliness of Millais’ Mary. Poor Millais, and poor Mary Hodgkinson, his sister-in-law, who had modelled as Mary for the artist. Personally, I think she looks lovely.