NOT YOUR AVERAGE JOE: ‘Childhood of Christ’ by Gerrit van Honthorst (c 1620)

Gerrit van Honthorst is one of the leading masters of the 17th century Dutch painting. He was born in Utrecht in 1592 to a painter of tapestry cartoons. Essentially trained in the studio of Abraham Bloemaert, in 1610-12 he set for Rome and embraced the Baroque boom. Greatly influenced by the art of Caravaggio, he subscribed to the artist’s radical vision and adopted his revolutionary idiom. His great devotion to darkness and light earned him the title ‘Gherardo delle Notti’ or ‘Gerard of the nights’.

The play of light and darkness is very prominent in all of Honthorst’s paintings. Their function is not purely artistic as it is analytical in character. It penetrates into one’s intellectual, cultural, philosophical and spiritual being and arouses much speculation and contemplation. Unlike the gold flooded backgrounds of Medieval art, Honthrost’s baroque paintings stressed on ‘Divine Darkness’ as a mysterious medium of enlightening and strengthening faith. Darkness, according to his art, is fundamental for the attainment of spiritual perfection.

The absolute beauty of the play of light and shadow is gracefully expressed through today’s painting titled ‘The Childhood of Christ.’ To our extreme right stand two child-like angels with flowing drapery and fluffy wings. Their dreamy demeanour allures us to a higher realm while their little fingers direct us to the scene set before them.  

Engulfed by shadows, to our left, stands the elderly Joseph. His wavy silver-white hair and lined forehead maps the journey of his life. And yet his gleaming eyes and sturdy hands waver not from work. With rolled up sleeves, Joseph dwells deep into midnight memories as he carves new ones with his robust tools. 

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