Max Ernst – The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child (1926)

A true innovator and provocateur, German artist Max Ernst was one of the leading figures of Surrealism and the Dada art movements, blending in mythology, Christian iconography and Freudian psychology in his dark, dreamlike artworks. The gruesome experience of fighting during World War I made him realize that the world was irrational, objective reality being nothing but a dream. Deeply disillusioned, he explored this new belief through his art, becoming fascinated with the process of painting directly from his subconscious.

In 1926, Ernst depicted an unusual, yet amusing instance of Madonna and her infant, where a naked boy Jesus, maybe 5 years old, is spanked for his unruly behavior, his buttocks red from the punishment. The full title of the painting is The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard, and the Painter. I know, it’s quite a mouthful. At the time, the artwork raised a lot of controversy and was deemed blasphemous, for Jesus couldn’t be treated as your ordinary child. Nor could he ever misbehave. In Ernst’s vision, however, the child is not only chastised for his deeds, but he has even lost his halo – fallen to the ground – and is thus shown as any other infant.

Max Ernst - The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child before Three Witnesses
Max Ernst – The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child (1926), oil on canvas

Bold lines give Mary an imposing stature, capturing her determination to punish the child: one hand is raised menacingly in the air, while the other holds the boy still. There’s also this great contrast between her red dress and the blue shawl covering her legs.

To the left, through a small window we can see the heads of the three witnesses to the scene: Ernst himself, alongside two of his friends, Surrealist poets André Breton and Paul Éluard. They provide the backdrop for the narrative, reminding us of the Surrealist irreverence which took nothing too seriously. Due to their voyeuristic presence there, the scene turns slightly sadistic, as if the witnesses – representatives of Surrealism – are enjoying the display of pain and the desecration of a religious symbol.

Parmigianino - Madonna with a Long Neck
Parmigianino – Madonna with a Long Neck (c. 1535), oil on wood

In many ways, the painting looks like a modern take on Parmigianino’s Madonna with a Long Neck. Once considered highly controversial, today The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child is, at worst, simply intriguing, regardless of one’s religious beliefs.

 

Related: Stanley Spencer – The Last Supper (1920)

15 thoughts on “Max Ernst – The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child (1926)

    1. I don’t know whether Ernst was banned from the Vatican, but it’s impressive that he’s still controversial. Now he offends both Christians and people who see spanking as an abomination, despite this being standard behavior a century ago.

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  1. I think this is a wonderful painting that is both whimsical and challenging at once. The fallen halo is particularly cheeky and made me chuckle as I thought of it, cartoon-like (and hence removed from reality and moralizing), popping off under this very strong Mary’s disciplinary strikes.

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    1. Aha! So I’m not the only one with a weird sense of humor. I like how this is ultimately a parody of all the Madonna & child art from the Renaissance and before, where the pair of them was depicted so serenely and affectionately. The painting has an instantaneous, visual shock value to it.

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  2. So the Christ child loses his halo “… and is thus shown as any other infant …” while Mary retains her’s. And thus she is shown as any other mother and not someone terrible?

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    1. Hmm. I see it like this. Christ child losing his halo has a double significance: (i) he misbehave, so he lost his divine status (temporarily); (ii) visually it’s also implied that he may have lost it due to gravity and Mary’s spanking.

      When it comes to Mary, however, the fact that she keeps her halo could be a nod of approval from Ernst, that there’s nothing wrong with her behavior.

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  3. If showing Baby Jesus having his bare bottom maternally spanked was a profound affront to his implicit Godliness, I think it also stands as a tribute to Mother Nature and the underlying fact of the human condition. A society with natural underpinnings requires that people be held accountable for their actions.

    No less than the Christ child needed corporal chastisement from Mary, given her natural responsibility for his infantile behaviour. The image is fundamentally of a mother spanking her naughty child, naturally enough in ages past – but admittedly not just any mother and child. To me, it takes religion and religious worship down from the altar, and confronts us with the physically verifiable truth of our flesh-and-blood existence.

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  4. My appreciation of Ernst’s painting notwithstanding, Gabriela, I do have to wonder just what the Christ child could’ve done at such a tender age to provoke not just a single disapproving smack, but a bona fide spanking. As you noted, Jesus’s bottom is already beginning to redden, and Mary’s punishing arm held high shows no sign of tiring.

    The fact of the spanking is one thing, but Ernst leaves me with real curiosity about how it came to be administered. Mary certainly appears to know what she’s doing, suggesting she’d either spanked Jesus before, or at least seen other mothers spank.

    I’d be interested to know whether Ernst had any particular feeling about child spanking. I personally don’t happen to see its depiction here in a negative light, and I suspect it was practically commonplace in 1926. Again, that fits my advancing of the image’s flesh-and-blood realism. I can easily see it being a mother and child in a tenement in New York’s Lower East Side.

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    1. Thank you for your lovely comments, Reynard. It’s touching that Ernst’s painting intrigues you this much. The best art always does! One thing to keep in mind, however, is that Surrealists didn’t give that much thought to what they were depicting – they favored subconscious imagery and rejected carefully planned narratives, all with the aim to free the psyche of restrictions. Their works are often whimsical, shocking, illogical, and elude any sort of interpretation, as if peering in someone else’s dream.

      That said, in this particular case, Ernst seems to approach this subject with irony. There is a real feel of a narrative here. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I would argue), it’s left to us to fill in the blanks with our imagination as to what caused the spanking or what happened afterwards. It certainly humanizes the Virgin Mary – Jesus relationship and that’s a plus in my book.

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      1. I have to confess, Gabriela, spanking in any form began to catch my eye as an impressionable six-year-old. “Intrigues” is definitely the appropriate word. Simply seeing “SPANKING” on the cover of a parenting magazine back then (btw, I’m 68) had me truly spellbound.

        Unlike the Virgin Mary and Jesus, my own mother-child relationship involved only the threats of spanking. I was punished instead by the withdrawal of affection. To her credit, my mother in her later years came to realize that spanking me most likely would’ve been helpful. She may even have shared my feeling that our special rapport might well have been even warmer (pun not intended) had I spent any time at all across her knee.

        What ever other depictions may have occurred to him, Ernst depicted a spanking. There’s long been an enduring subculture of spanking artistry. The spanking of the Christ child may have been religiously controversial, Gabriela, but the act itself has naturally invited illustrating for generations. And I have an idea the fundamentalist strain would hold with even Jesus being parentally corrected. Despite my own deprivation in that regard, I grew up with a sense that it simply came with the territory.

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  5. If you’re hopefully able to access this image, Gabriela, it might best be described as my photographic comment (my formal training) on the theme of Ernst’s painting:

    (Please know I’d be sending it privately if I could)

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