The Christmas Child

Adoration of the Magi, , Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682). IMAGE: PUBLIC DOMAIN


The joy of Christmas is best understood by children. Excused from the stress of planning, blissfully unaware of the expenses of gift-giving and the labor of holiday preparations, little ones are free to simply relish the glory of the season. Their sincere excitement stands as a reminder for us that the birth of Christ — and the festivities that surround it — are meant to inject us with a taste of ecstasy.

Even when we feel burdened by yuletide trappings, the presence of children in our midst helps to relieve us and remind us what this feast is all about. Witnessing the glee and happiness of youngsters is, in fact, one of the greatest gifts of Christmas. God became a child in our midst, and we rejoice.

As the father of 11 children, the Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo must have understood all of this. Thus, it is not surprising that one of the most unique elements of the Sevillian master’s Adoration of the Magi is the prominence of children in this beloved image of Christmastide.

Traditional depictions of the visit of the three kings are usually void of any youthful presence other than that of the Christ Child himself. But here Murillo offers us a refreshing point for meditation. He not only embellished the scene with two children who attend the royal entourage, but he also chose to bathe their faces in light. The other figures surrounding the Virgin and Child are mostly obscured by shadows and thus lack the focal significance that the painter bestowed upon the two little boys.

Self-portrait, circa 1670–1673 (detail) Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682). IMAGE: PUBLIC DOMAIN

This conscious use of light and shadow, called chiaroscuro, is a technique Murillo used frequently. This was in the style of his master, Francisco de Zurbarán, from whom he also gained the skills to create his realistic depictions of children, idealized peasants, and religious figures. Murillo’s work gained tremendous popularity during his lifetime, to the point where he was considered one of the most renowned artists in all of Europe as his fame overtook even that of Zurbarán.

Especially well received were Murillo’s paintings of the Madonna and Child as well as his depictions of the Immaculate Conception. His prominence led him in 1660 to co-found Spain’s first art academy, the Academia de Bellas Artes. In that same year Murillo completed this magnificent image of the three kings bestowing their gifts and their homage upon the infant King of Kings.

Although they stand on the edge as mere servants enlisted with the task of holding the garments of the Magi, the children Murillo placed in the scene demand our attention. While one little boy gazes off in distraction, as many children are so apt to do, the other child’s eyes are fixed on the tiny Savior. The youngster seems lost in wonder as he beholds the newborn baby, whom Mary so generously shares with the company that surrounds her.

Mary’s face, too, is radiant with the light that seems to emanate from the face of the Child in her arms. Although Murillo placed the guiding Star of Bethlehem in the sky above, Jesus himself is the source of light in this scene. Perhaps the deeply devout Catholic painter wished to remind his viewers of the truth this Child would one day proclaim:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

This gift of the true guiding light is offered to us all. One need not be a king to behold it, or an adult to appreciate it. In fact, it may be that children are more readily disposed to shun the shadows of life and live in the light of Christ. As the Lord told his disciples, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

As we enter into the most glorious celebration of Christmas, where the presence and joy of children is so evident around us, let us pause for a moment to recognize what we can learn from them. May we, like Murillo, turn our attention to children, and thank God for the witness of innocence, trust, and happiness we see written so clearly on their faces. And then, let us praise God for the great gift of his Son, the Holy Infant, who reminds us all that divinity chose to dwell in the beautiful bundle of a baby boy.

Adoration of the Magi, , Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682). IMAGE: PUBLIC DOMAIN

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