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.
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.
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.