Gabriel Metsu’s Plague Drama, The Sick Child
The painting tells a story through its colors. The Boy recumbent atop the ultramarine and incarnadine robes of the Madonna. His gaunt frame is accentuated by loose fitting cloths to which the eye is drawn by a splash of wan orange. The boy’s heavy outer garments have been cast aside and his bare legs hang over the lap of his wool-clad mother evincing the heat of a fever. He turns irreverently from the dish beside him, an urn colored a hale dark orange and contrasted against the pale background. There is a connection here. Follow from urn to toe to head across the breast of the mother and the line leads the eye to a sepulchral depiction of the crucifixion, a coal-dark Mary keening at Christ’s feet. It is only after noting the religious appeal being made, that we see the mother. Like a stage-hand, she is dressed in an indistinct color and her face fades in the background.
This Mary, like the biblical Mary, is occluded behind the aura of her child. Her time of singularity is before and after Christ, hardly during. Like the sallow ocher background and the grim crucifixion, her trunk and face fade into an unadorned and anonymous religious backdrop. Only where her body touches the child, does her religiosity raise to the level of passion. From the point of view of the mother who looks down upon her child, there is a blinkered sincerity told in color.
But the child carries his own perspective. He is wiser and darker than the mother — less emotional. Like so many depictions of Christ, he looks away from his mother, but neither does he look heavenward nor flash his exhorting eyes at the viewer.
Walter Pater described what he saw in Sandro Boticelli’s depictions of infant Christ as a look of devotion upon the Christ-child’s face which “men have never been able altogether to love…and still makes the born saint an object almost of suspicion to his earthly brethren.” This depiction is common in much of Renaissance art and religious depictions of the young messiah. And it raises the question, how ought one to treat a God embodied in a child?
The child himself does not cry or pule or make the noises so many babes might in a cold barn, but lords as heir to omniscience; and all around the Christ, peasants and husbandmen and earthly kings alike reveal in rapture and in tongues the messianic prophesies of the Torah as if it were tattooed on his skin. A child with the knowledge not only of good and evil, but of his own death (9:30–32) is no son of man in ordinary terms. No, he is much, much older than his parents. Take his discussion with the “wise” elderly doctors as depicted by Durer.
In the face of Metsu’s Christ-child, there is a look of knowledge: the relaxed eyes of those peculiar people like Batis who refuse to truckle before the knees of their murderers. The child won’t eat. The child knows he will die. It is only the mother who hopes against hope, religiously, that he might yet try. But, the child is not Christ nor his mother the Madonna. They are only casualties of a plague, embodying archetypal roles of the child as the father of the man and the hopeful mother of the doomed child.
This religion of Metsu’s is a dark stained glass that only attains the height of color when embodied by inscrutable interpersonal passions: child, lover, sister, mutatis mutandis. For whom does this peasant child die for he does not die king or messiah? And when he dies, and the ambiguity finally lifts, will the mother remain exalted, ever-chastened Mary?
Unlikely. There was no before, no myth, and so there will be no after, no worship. The Christianity of Metsu’s depiction is an empty one. 10% of the population of Amsterdam would succumb to the plague between 1663 and 1666. Metsu likely painted this depiction in the aftermath.