The infant Christ is the central figure in this painting, but he is the only one who doesn't look at us directly. Gripping his rosary (the Catholic prayer beads used to keep count of devotions), he gazes beyond the frame in contemplation, while Joseph, the Virgin Mary and the young John the Baptist stare forward.
Jordaens likely painted this picture with Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Rosary in mind (the picture had travelled from Naples to one of Antwerp’s many Catholic churches in the early seventeenth century). The rosary beads resurface here and, combined with Christ’s outward gaze, they might hint at something beyond his childhood. The reed cross held by John stands in for the crucifix of the Passion (Christ’s torture and crucifixion), which was contemplated by means of the rosary prayer. Joseph, Mary and John address us, but Christ addresses his future.
In this painting, the Virgin Mary, Joseph and Christ look almost as if they are posing for a family photo. Joseph and Mary look outward, meeting the viewer’s gaze, as does the young John the Baptist, Christ’s cousin (the reed cross clasped firmly in both hands is his attribute). The infant Christ is the only one who does not look out at the viewer directly. He seems occupied with something else, his eyes turned to his right. All four figures are markedly close to the picture plane, adding to the sense of intimacy. There is limited space around them, but in the little there is we see a blue curtain falling loosely on what appears to be a sculpted cherub, its wings folded in a heart shape.
Although Jordaens converted to Reformed Protestantism later in his life, he mostly painted for Catholic patrons in his native Antwerp, where he arguably was the leading painter after Rubens and Van Dyck. A gifted draughtsman, painter and tapestry designer, Jordaens was familiar with the Christian subjects popular with the city’s patrician patrons. The artist returned to intimate depictions of the holy family a number of times in his paintings and drawings, although no other version confronts the audience as directly. Another Holy Family by Jordaens (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm) is similar, and has the mother and child address their viewers; Joseph engages with a secondary figure holding a candle, however, and John is absent altogether.
Jordaens' painting has a striking resemblance to one of his much earlier works, The Holy Family with the Infant Baptist (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden). In that work, both John and a figure identified as either Joseph, Joachim or Zacharias look out at the viewer in a similar fashion. It has been suggested that Jordaens picked up the motif of the Christ Child standing on his mother’s lap looking out of the picture from Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Rosary – the altarpiece had been brought to Antwerp by the painters Louis Finson and Abraham Vinck, after Caravaggio left it in Naples before departing for Malta. In Antwerp, it was displayed in the Dominican church of St Paul, where it was seen by Rubens and Jan Brueghel, among others.
The prominence of the rosary held by Saint Dominic in Caravaggio’s painting is repeated here in the single string held by the young Christ. The beads contrast with his white flesh as he holds them up with both hands. The infant’s handling of the rosary combined with his distracted gaze might hint at something beyond his childhood: Christ seems aware of his death. The presence of John’s reed cross stands in for the crucifix of the Passion (Christ’s torture and crucifixion), which was contemplated by means of the rosary prayer. While Joseph, Mary and John address us as viewers, Christ addresses what is to come.
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