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Christ blessing little Children

Suffer the little Children to come unto Me

Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). The National Gallery of Canada – Ottawa. Around 1618.

Matthew tells that people brought little children to Jesus, for him to lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples scolded them, but Jesus said, “Let the little children alone, and do not stop them from coming to me; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of Heaven belongs.” Then he laid his hands on them and went on his way G38 .

Pictures were made in the seventeenth century for occasions of everyday life, as we take photographs of happy occasions today. Rich aristocrats or wealthy traders would ask a painter to make a picture of a wedding, of a birth, or of a nomination to important functions in society of the father of the family. One of these occasions was First Communion for the boys. Most rich people would choose a great painter and pay a lot of cash and wait a long time. One could also find a young, promising artist just accepted in the guild of painters and have a nice painting for less money.

Such an event may have happened to Anthony van Dyck and the picture ‘Suffer the little Children to come unto Me’. Van Dyck painted the scene around 1618 when he was still eighteen or nineteen years old. The picture came to us from the eighteenth century collection of the Dukes of Marlborough of Blenheim Palace and it was known there as a portrait of the family of Pieter Paul Rubens B10 . Scientific, historical investigation proved however that the attribution is very unlikely. It is a family portrait all right. The two parents are shown, three children and a baby. Van Dyck has had the very nice idea to make a devotional picture of the family portrait. And since Jesus is laying his hand on the head of the elder boy who is probably around seven to eleven years old, this could indeed be a picture of a First or of a Solemn Communion.

Christian boys and girls have to go through two rites of admission into the Roman Catholic Church Community. At First Communion they participate for the first time in the Eucharist and take to them the Holy Host. From then on they can go to communion in the church every time they want. At Solemn Communion they repeat the vows of Christianity made for them by their foster parents at baptism. These occasions have since old been great feasts and solemn affairs in church and at home. They are milestones on the path to becoming adults for children; the events are rites of passage that go back far to primeval times. The First and Solemn Communions were feasts to assemble all members of a family to a banquet that could last several days. The occasions were happy ones, as can be seen from the faces of the mother and father who intently look at Jesus as if he were the priest leading the ceremony.

Anthony van Dyck was something of a child prodigy. His first known painting, a self-portrait, dates from when he was fourteen years old. He had been a pupil of the painter Hendrick van Balen since he was eleven (since after his Solemn Communion?). The year the painting of the ‘Little Children’ was made he had already other painters to assist him in his newly opened workshop, like Herman Servaes and Justus van Egmont. Van Dyck worked also in the workshop of Rubens, the master of masters in Antwerp. Van Dyck was still very young but he had already handled religious themes like ‘Christ Carrying the Cross’ and ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Peter’ with much confidence so that his fame started to be known. He had made family portraits before. So it was a young but quite accomplished painter who has been at work for this ‘Little Children’.

Van Dyck shows in this painting already many of the skills of a great painter. There is strong composition and there are wonderful colours here that catch the eye of the viewer. Our gaze is attracted first to the mother dressed in white and feeble but brilliant blue, then to Jesus in deep red. We see intimate movements of hands. We see faces that show all the characters of the figures. The hands of van Dyck are always marvellous. Look at the small chubby fingers of the baby, the baby that is sucking at a toy. Then look at the delicate hands of the boy at the lower right. This boy is painted as an angel or a putto, with a coral necklace around his chest. The feasted elder boy wears rings. He folds his hands in prayer and has already the hands of a clerk. The middle boy has the nervous hands of youth. The father holds his hands to the heart. Jesus has his long hands tenderly on the head of the boy. The apostles have the worn hands of elder fishermen. All the hands are vivid, elegant, full of expression, all painted in different poses. They really tell the story.

One senses a young artist in this simple picture. But the rich palette of the maturer van Dyck is present too. There is the green-yellow robe to the left, which contrasts with the blue cloak of the father. The deep red colour of Jesus’ robe is the colour of love, the very colour that would suit this scene. The mother is in the splendid very bright and light blue that we find back in many of van Dyck’s later portraits of his English period. Red colour attracts our view whereas blue is a colour that creates distance. Red is therefore much used by painters not just because it was a colour of love but also so that the viewer be sympathetically attracted to Jesus. Van Dyck contrasted this feeling with the cold white-blue, a receding colour, the picture obtained a soft kind of relief, a dynamism of view that supports the liveliness of the scene.

The only element that lacks in this painting is maybe the forcefulness of expression in the faces, the subtle but clear expression of the characters in the faces of the figures. But this was an occasion of joy for van Dyck too, and not an occasion of too much analysis nor of intricate reflection on the figures. And then still, look at the heads of Jesus and especially of his apostles. Van Dyck only needed to mature some more in force; all the rest of his art was present already.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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