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"God did play the child": Robert Southwell's "Christes childhoode".

WHAT KIND OF WISDOM and knowledge did the Christ Child have? (1) Robert Southwell's poem "Christes childhood," from the Maeoniae, offers a carefully constructed reply that provides evidence about Counter-Reformation attitudes toward this ancient question and, more important for our purposes, evidence about Southwell's own understanding of the Christ Child's nature as fully human and fully divine. Pierre Janelle once remarked that the lyric presents the Christ Child as an ideal Jesuit hero--"the attitude of the boy Jesus seems to be modeled after the pattern of classical--and Jesuit--moderation" (162). This description, while it responds to the poem's careful searching for balance and integration, ignores its argumentative edge. The lyric is celebratory of Jesus's virtues but it is also instructive: in its own subtle way it takes a stand against very common folkloric depictions of the Christ Child as wonder working and even disruptive to reintroduce the simplicity and mystery of the Gospels' depiction of Jesus the boy and reaffirm his divine knowledge and power, while retaining one aspect of extrabiblical depictions that Southwell, unexpectedly, seems to consider important: the Christ Child at play. This poem differs from his other more famous poems on the Christ Child in that it presents the Child in a hieratic stance, an image of power and judgment rather than that of an active lover, eager sacrifice, or Warrior Babe. On the other hand, true to Southwell's love of paradox, while the poem presents us with a Child who is Judge of the World, it also represents him as a God who plays and perhaps experiences mirth. Though Southwell verges on declaring the humanity of Christ an act performed by a divinity, he achieves a balance that demonstrates that he also wishes to affirm the humanity of Christ. Southwell does not explicitly deny the folk tradition of a wonder-working Christ Child any more than he denies that the Christ Child grew and learned: he merely asserts that even the Gospel writers are unworthy to write of the miraculous acts springing from his divinity and humanity in this period of Christ's life. The claim is surprising in the end, for it implies that the wonders, teaching, and redeeming acts of Jesus depicted in the Gospels can be written of by men, but the wonder of his childhood is too great for human pens.

The Counter-Reformation, like the Reformation itself, was concerned to remove extraneous pious legend from the truth of the Gospel, and in particular to safeguard the honor of Christ and his saints from a folk imagination that mythologized and embroidered with a very strong basis in the generally accepted apocryphal stories that had been handed down from very early centuries of the Church, some so old that they were known to Mohammed and included in the Koran, such as the tale of the boy Jesus breathing life into clay birds. The Catholic thinker Molanus, or Jan van der Meulen, even had called The Golden Legend the Legend of Lead because it was so filled with lies (De Picturis et Imaginibus Sacris, pro vero earum usu contra abusus ["Treatise on Sacred Images"] of 1570). Even before the decree of the Council, tales about the boy Jesus had been omitted from some versions of the collection, a sign of sensitivity about their inappropriateness or even their potential to subvert orthodox doctrine about Christ. (2)

Southwell's assertion that only angels might write of what Christ did during those childhood years seems to have no other reason for being in the poem other than to imply that what the legends passed on in popular religious culture was untrue. This odd caveat aligns itself with the decrees of the Council of Trent on sacred art, which made it clear that extrabiblical fables about the life of Christ were not to be represented:

And if any abuses have crept in amongst these holy and salutary observances, the holy Synod ardently desires that they be utterly abolished; in such wise that no images, (suggestive) of false doctrine, and furnishing occasion of dangerous error to the uneducated, be set up. And if at times, when expedient for the unlettered people; it happen that the facts and narratives of sacred Scripture are portrayed and represented; the people shall be taught, that not thereby is the Divinity represented, as though it could be seen by the eyes of the body, or be portrayed by colours or figures.

Moreover, in the invocation of saints, the veneration of relics, and the sacred use of images, every superstition shall be removed, all filthy lucre be abolished; finally, all lasciviousness be avoided. (The Twenty-Fifth Session: On the Invocation, Veneration, and Relics, of Saints, and on Sacred Images, December 4, 1563)

In his famous study of the effects of the decree on sacred art after the Council of Trent, Emile Male mostly focuses on the representation of the Incarnation and the Nativity, and does not mention the depiction of the Christ Child per se. Anthony Blunt, in his equally famous study, also neglects the topic, and it is clear that more work needs to be done on this particular issue in the field of art history, because the Christ Child is more frequently represented in sculpture and painting than in poetry. Both authors note that the decrees of the Council and perhaps more important what was written proscriptively afterward effectively killed off numbers of images and iconographies that had had an active life in the Middle Ages. "Christes childhood" gives us some hints about the trajectory of the history of his depiction as a child or youth, and Southwell's poem is significant as a response to the new norms for representing Christ.

In his repeated depictions of the Christ Child, Southwell faces an extraordinary challenge, one complicated by the poet's own express desire to tune "nature's string" with "grace" in order to write poetry that is true. Richard Kieckhefer perhaps puts it best in his study of apparitions of the Christ Child in "The German Sister Books" of the late Middle Ages: "If he [Christ] was truly divine, he should have full divine consciousness even while lying in the manger. But it seems virtually impossible to conceive that without verging on a Monophysite theology, in which the humanity is compromised for the sake of the full divinity, and indeed the infancy becomes something of a pretence." (3) St. Luke is the only biblical source that speaks about the childhood of Christ, though there are elements from Isaiah and other Old Testament prophecies that become attached to the depictions of Christ early on. Luke has nothing to say about Christ's knowledge in the Nativity scenes in his Gospel, nor does he say anything about his development or acts during his childhood after the return from Egypt except the story of his remaining in the Temple with the Doctors as Mary and Joseph leave Jerusalem when he is twelve. Through writing this poem, Southwell wishes to return to the Gospel silence on the matter of Christ's development and thus cleanse the record entirely of folkloric accretions.

The evangelist says in Luke 1:52, "And the child grew and waxed strong, full of wisdom: and the grace of God was in him." In that sentence resides the entirety of the knowledge the Gospel writer wishes to hand on to the coming ages about Christ from one week to twelve years old, more than a third of his earthly life. If we add on the development and actions from the time of the event in the Temple to the opening of Jesus's public ministry, we are talking about thirty years of silence. Yet in that sentence, Southwell also knows well, resides the entirety of the puzzle that medieval fabulists and theologians alike sought to piece together about the central mystery of Christ's existence: the hypostatic union. (4) How exactly that union manifested itself in those aspects of Christ's life not recorded in the Gospel-which he clearly nonetheless lived through--was hard to imagine. The evangelist John claims that if all the things Jesus did were to be recorded, the world would not be big enough to contain the volumes (Jn, 21:25). And so imagine writers certainly did, from the time of the composition of Pseudo-Matthew onward, as Mary Dzon has discussed in several articles and her forthcoming book on the Christ Child. The tradition had handed down images of Christ's wonderworking abilities before the official first miracle at Cana: his hanging jugs on sunbeams, killing disagreeable playmates and grudgingly resurrecting them at Joseph's behest, infusing life into clay birds on the Sabbath, lengthening wooden items for disgruntled customers in Joseph's carpenter's shop, and other actions even less reconcilable with divine goodness, not to mention, biblical accounts.

As Dzon has asserted, "although medieval clerics were somewhat wary of apocryphal texts, they did not forbid others to read them." (5) The apocryphal tales of Christ's deeds as a child, generated in Pseudo-Matthew in the pseudo-Gospel known as the Protevangelion, circulated widely and provided the inspiration for many a depiction in painting, tile work, and manuscript illuminations throughout the Middle Ages. Gillian Clark asserts that "the stories of Jesus' own childhood which circulated in the apocryphal 'infancy gospels' were concerned with the power of this exceptional child and certainly not intended as models for other children." (6) In fact, if Pamela Sheingorn is right, "the genre of biography as understood in antiquity" determined to a large extent the depiction of the Child as a wonder worker, since "childhood deeds foretold the character of the adult." Any biography of an exceptional man would include prodigious deeds from his childhood as a matter of course. Since character was not seen as developing but as determined from birth, or even from before birth, Hock considers the "apocryphal infancy stories" as paradigmatic. (7) The Renaissance inherited Christ the wonder-working Child but would not pass him on to the next generation.

To assert that Christ worked no such wonders as a child would have been an option open to Southwell in this poem, but there is the possibility that he wanted to preserve the idea that the childhood might have been filled with such miracles, for he does not baldly deny them, and he certainly does not do what Milton would later do in Paradise Regained, defer Christ's stepping into his divine role as Savior until the age of twelve. Southwell's Christ Child is wondrous, however, in a much less showy way than is his folkloric predecessor:

   Such acts to mortal eyes He did present,
   Whose worth not men but angels must recite:
   No nature's blots, no childish faults defiled,
   Where grace was guide, and God did play the child.

It is the Christ Child's freedom from childish faults that makes him remarkable, but it is a leap of thought to deduce godhead from the absence of such faults. The Child's perfection is unrepresentable and thus divine--one thinks of John of Damascus's understanding of the godhead as unrepresentable because it is uncircumscribable: the pen cannot surround and capture it. (8) This is true of his divinity; of course, the iconodules defended the representation of Christ precisely because of his humanity. Here is one aspect of Southwell's poem that steers us toward a Child who may be divine but not human. The poem in stanza one could be veering toward an image of Christ as unrepresentable, but it does not restrict itself to negative statements about what Christ lacks. He did act; grace guided him, and he, God, played the child.

Southwell chooses not to focus on the sole episode displaying the Child's wisdom and future destiny in "Christes childhood." Rather, his focus is on the silence itself. He does not just assert the silence of the Gospels, however, but he takes pains to refute two possible imaginative views of the Christ Child that did color folk legend, such as in "The Bitter Withy": "No nature's blots, no childish faults defiled" him. "Defiled" rhymes with "child," a fact that may have instigated Southwell's choice of the term, but it is a strong word Southwell could have avoided if he did not wish to convey a sense that such defects could not exist in Christ who is God and perfect man. A blot of nature would be inappropriate--here Southwell seems to refer to Christ's body, but may also be implying something about his intellect and other human powers. Southwell's only biblical justification for such a claim is Luke's statement that the Child "waxed strong." Southwell goes further than his biblical source; one assumes he means something along the line of Christ having no moles or crooked teeth, no pigeon-toes or knock knees, and so on, but he might also be thinking of health problems, internal defects, and the like. William MacLehose has pointed out that medieval authors denied that the Christ Child could have exhibited "childish faults": "It should be noted that ... Hildegard of Bingen denied that Jesus could have stammered 'as is the custom of other infants'; instead, even as an infant, he spoke clearly and perfectly because of his unique conception. Hildegard does not believe he spoke immediately at birth but only 'after his little body had such strength that it could produce words.'" (9) Moreover, we are to deduce that the Christ Child was never cranky, disobedient, or willful. He did not spit or bite or kick or make rude noises. He never had a temper tantrum. More important to Southwell's audience, who knew the tales of Christ's displays of power from the Golden Legend and the apocryphal Gospels, he never angered his playmates or the authorities by hanging jugs on sunbeams or making little lakes of water or creating clay birds and animating them in defiance of the Sabbath, nor did he strike down his companions with lightning, all faults Mary Dzon discusses in her "Wanton Boys in Middle English Texts and the Christ Child." (10)

Filled with "nature's gifts" and led by grace, Southwell's Christ Child is obedient to the Father's will without the taint of subordinationism that will enter into Milton's "Paradise Regained" in the next century. In fact, the reader comes away from the poem with a strong sense of the divinity of Jesus. "Grave," "auncient," of "high maiestie," "His sadness temper'd with a mild aspect," Southwell's Christ Child looks upon others and is looked at by them as judge: "His eye to try each action was a glass, / Whose looks did good approve and bad correct." This is the hieratic stance I mentioned above, in which Southwell presents us with the face of Christ, evocative of the Pantocrator whose upper body only is visible as he gazes steadily and seriously forward. Midway through the poem, we are almost led to deduce that Christ's childhood is a pose, and that he is hiding his divinity from onlookers though it is always ready to burst out unexpectedly:

   In springing locks lay crouched hoary wit,
   In semblant young, a grave and ancient port;
   In lowly looks high majesty did sit.

The tradition of the Puer Senex, or the boy who is an old man, also reminds us of Byzantine representations of the Christ Child. But Southwell's verbs are peculiar: "hoary wit" "crouches" in the boy's curls, rather like a cat poised to leap upon its prey, and "high majesty" "sits" in his "lowly looks," so that it seems to be enthroned. Southwell's choice of the term "semblaunt" to mean "face" or "demeanor" also has afrisson of dissembling. Moreover, God is the subject of the last phrase of each stanza, and is especially emphasized in the last sentence: "His grace, His word and deed, /Well show'd that all did from a God proceed." Southwell returns the reader's attention each time to Christ's divinity. Perhaps this is why the poem seems so much more concerned with the divinity of the Child than his humanity. The Christ Child's static quality in the poem, so different from his activity in "The Burning Babe" and "New Heaven New Warre," may be mimicking poetically the pose Gillian Clark describes: "When the Christ-child is represented in Late Antique art, it is usually as a small-scale adult sitting upright on Mary's knee ... the message is concerned with the Incarnation, not with childhood. ... The strictly frontal version of this pose, called the Sedes Sapientiae, represents the Throne of Wisdom, an image in which Mary functions as the support and medium for Christ, who is Wisdom." (11)

Most leadingly, Southwell asserts that "God did play the child." Why does Southwell say Christ was guided by grace, and why does he say that God did play the child, not that God was a child? This most problematic phrase of the poem makes the reader think immediately of "playing a role," as in the counterfeiting of an actor. If Southwell is asserting that God is tricking human beings with his childlike aspect, Southwell would here be guilty of Monophysitism, and indeed, the question of Christ's knowledge in his childhood cannot be approached without reference to St. Hilary of Poitiers, whom Kevin Madigan recently has suspected of just this heretical predisposition. (12) Hilary had famously opined early in the history of debate about the subject of Christ's human nature that Christ only suffered outwardly but remained divinely unmoved by pain and fear; likewise, Christ was in possession of all knowledge from his birth onward, a view that remained for the most part unchallenged throughout the early Middle Ages.

However, I would argue for a different interpretation of this curious phrase. Southwell indicates that the Christ Child is guided by grace, which only makes sense if he is indeed human, at the same time that the poet gives evidence of Christ as God: the two phrases "Grace was guide" and "God did play the child" are connected by the conjunction "and," indicating no tension between the two items in the series. That is a large argument to hang on one small conjunction, but it is so unlikely that Southwell believes the Incarnation was a trick played by God that the reader must look for a different explanation. Southwell probably wants the term "play" to indicate something about Christ's restraint of his divine power and also the playfulness of a little boy, rather than acting. The verbs draw our attention to guidance and playing, to direction and freedom, to roles normally associated with an adult and with a child. Christ thus retains his humanity as he learns from nature, as Aquinas opined, unlike Hilary. (13)

Southwell's Christ Child is in perfect possession of all that nature can reveal to him. That he gained experiential knowledge through his human senses one may deduce from the lines: "Nature imparted all that she could teach," and "His nature's gifts." However, what is unknowable by human nature he still knew, through God or as God: "And God supplied where nature could not reach." Nothing the Christ Child does is unfitting for God; all that he does reveals his divinity, whether it is his human nature or his grace of person and thought that instigates his actions and words.

In the image of the Christ Child as Salvator Mundi, alone, unsupported, and facing the audience frontally as he does in both Francisco Zurbaran and Carlo Dolci's famous paintings, is prefigured here: Southwell is very much in tune with the trajectory of the art world of the century to come. Temperate, mildly threatening, unmoved and unmoving, Southwell's Christ Child exists in silence. This poem asserts Christ's divinity as a child not against the subordinationists of the coming century--the reformed Christians of Southwell's time believed virtually the same things about Christ as the Catholics did--but against a folkloric image of a Christ Child freighted with human fallibility. But what is remarkable about "Christes Childhood" is that in Southwell's world of tears and flames, temporal conflations, paradoxes, sacrifice, and blood, there is space for God to play.


(1.) All citations of the poems are from ed. James H. McDonald, C.S.C., and Nancy Pollard Brown, The Poems of Robert Southwell, SJ. (Oxford, 1967).

(2.) Omission of Christ Child stories from Legenda Aurea.

(3.) Richard Kieckhefer, "'Ihesus ist Unser!': The Christ Child in the German Sister Books," The Christ Child in Medieval Culture: Alpha es et O!, ed. Mary Dzon and Theresa Kenney (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012).

(4.) Heinrich Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma (1854 [1954]), 148.

(5.) See Mary Dzon, "Cecily Neville and the Apocryphal Infantia salvatoris in the Middle Ages," Medieval Studies 71 (2009), 235.

(6.) Gillian Clark, "The fathers and the children," in Body and Gender, Soul and Reason in Late Antiquity (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate 2011), 20.

(7.) John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images. Trans. Andrew Louth. St. Vladimir Seminary Press (2003).

(8.) See Pamela Sheingorn's reference to Ronald F. Hock, The Infancy Gospels of James and Thomas in ed. Mary Dzon and Theresa Kenney, "Reshapings of the Childhood Miracles of Jesus" in The Christ Child in Medieval Culture: Alpha es et O! (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 284; see also 292 n. 46.

(9.) "Cuius corpusculum postquam tanti roboris factus est, quod verba proferre potuit, non verba balbutiendo more aliorum infantum, verba plana et perfecta pueriliter tamen protulit," ed. Heinrich Schipperges, "Ein unveroffentlichtes Hildegard-Fragment (Codex Berolin. Lat. Qu. 674)," 68. Note 43, 223.

(10.) "Wanton Boys in Middle English Texts and the Christ Child in Minneapolis, University of Minnesota, MS Z822 N81," in ed. Isabelle Cochelin and Karen Smyth, Medieval Lifecycles: Continuity and Change (Brepols, 2012).

(11.) Gillian Clark, "The fathers and the children," 20.

(12.) Kevin Madigan, The Passions of Christ in High-Medieval Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). For a convincing counterargument, see Carl Beckwith, "Suffering without pain: The scandal of Hilary of Poitiers' Christology," in the shadow of the Incarnation: Essays on Jesus Christ in the early church in honor of Brian E. Daley, SJ, ed. Peter Martens (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008).

(13.) Thomas Aquinas ST III, q. 9, a. 3 and a. 4. See Paul Gondreau, The Passions of Christ's Soul in the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (Scranton, PA: The University of Scranton Press, 2009), 421-26.
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Author:Kenney, Theresa M.
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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