We are surely used to the baby Jesus being painted as a healthy kid with big cheeks. He can be suckling on his mother’s breast, or playing with John the Baptist, or otherwise having good time on his mother’s lap.
Unfortunately, we may forget that Jesus was, after all, human in some ways. As far as his babyhood goes, just as he could suckle on his mother’s breast, so could he fall asleep, as babies do. This is precisely what Parmigianino, the Italian Mannerist artist of the 16th c., observed in his famous painting, Madonna dal Collo Lungo (Madonna with the Long Neck, left). As art historians would observe, this is a re-working of the pietà theme. We see Madonna adoringly gazing at her son, who is prostrated on her knees in his innocent slumber. The angels are watching and one of them is holding a jug with the Cross in it – a sign of the baby’s future Passions.
Madonna dal Collo Lungo was painted towards the end of Parmigianino’s life, and Giorgio Vasari in his Lives notes that the artist was not altogether content with the painting. It is dated by 1539, so when Michelangelo made his drawing in about 1560, he would have known about the one by Parmigianino. Today we have a painting based on Michelangelo’s, and the artist, Marcello Venusti, another Mannerist, made it in about 1565. Its full title is The Holy Family (left), but since Venusti’s time it’s been dubbed ‘Il Silenzio‘, and one can easily guess, why. Indeed, we see Christ falling asleep on his mother’s knees, apparently as she was reading to him. The feeling is different to the one we see in Madonna dal Collo Lungo: the baby’s slumber evidently took everyone by surprise, but while St. John the Baptist is making a “silenzio” sign, Joseph and Maria aren’t quite amused. It is also interesting to note Maria’s pose: I cannot instantly remember any painting in which her legs would be crossed. At any rate, the scene we see in this painting after Michelangelo’s drawing could possibly provoke the scene depicted by Max Ernst in his Virgin Spanking the Christ Child Before the Three Witnesses (1926, right).
On Il Silenzio‘s page on the National Gallery website there is an interesting comment about John the Baptist in Michelangelo-Venusti painting, that he is “mysteriously attired in a leopard skin (rather than the traditional camel skin)“. It seems to me that the drawing Michelangelo made could be a kind of hommage to Parmigianino, who, it was well-known and mentioned in Vasari’s Lives, greatly admired the work of both Michelangelo and Rafael. The reason for this is that in Parmigianino’s most celebrated work, The Vision of St. Jerome (right), on which he worked during the Sack of Rome in 1527, we see John the Baptist in the foreground, wearing leopard’s skin. And although the red and blue were the usual colours of Maria’s dress, they nevertheless were not the only combination. Again, it can be significant to an extent that in Venusti’s painting we see Madonna attired in the clothes of the same colours as in The Vision of St. Jerome.