Nicolaes Maes has turned a biblical moment into a scene from his own time, illustrating part of the Gospel of Matthew (19.13–14): ‘Then there were brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.’
The words would have been familiar in seventeenth-century Protestant Holland, where the godly upbringing of children was important. Although Christ is dressed in a ‘biblical’ robe, the other figures wear the clothes of working people of the time.
Maes used strong contrast between light and dark, and dark colours enlivened with touches of red, most vividly in the cheeks of the little girl Christ blesses. He would have learned these techniques as a student in Rembrandt’s studio.
The words would have been familiar in seventeenth-century Protestant Holland, where the upbringing of children in the ways of God was of great importance. Although Christ is dressed in a ‘biblical’ robe, the figures around him wear the clothes of working people of the time, and the little girl standing beside Christ wears her slate at her waist, as children did then. Nor has Maes depicted the women who bring their children as respectful, or even in awe of Christ, as was traditional. These mothers want their children blessed and they push their way forward to get their turn. Christ holds the little girl’s wrist firmly as she tries to turn away from him, finger in mouth. Perhaps she looks around for her mother, whose hand has just released her, or perhaps she has seen something that interests her – but she may just want to escape the heavy hand on her head. Christ’s expression is tender, but he is not a sentimental icon.
The bearded figure gazing down at Christ with anxious eyes, seemingly pressed against the tree on the right, is the disciple Peter, in disgrace for trying to turn children away from Christ. Beside him, a man hoists a child over the heads of the women in an effort to ensure that the boy will also receive Christ’s blessing. An older woman turns her head, resentful at the intrusion.
Maes has used chiaroscuro (strong contrast between light and dark) and dark colours – browns and blacks enlivened with cream and touches of red in Christ’s robe and, most vividly, the cheeks of the little girl he blesses. Maes would have learned these techniques as a student in Rembrandt’s studio; it is thought that he made this picture shortly after he left the studio. One of his two surviving preparatory sketches for the picture is loosely based on Rembrandt’s famous Hundred Guilder Print.
The figure squeezed in on the left, with his chin just above a baby’s head, is sometimes considered to be a self portrait, but there is no concrete evidence to support the idea. Later in his career, Maes produced secular genre paintings that were similarly full of character and incident. They are much smaller than this one and more intricately detailed. There are several in the National Gallery’s collection, including A Little Girl rocking a Cradle and Interior with a Sleeping Maid and her Mistress (‘The Idle Servant’). We can’t know for certain why the change in style, scale and subject matter came about, although it may simply be that there was a more ready market for smaller genre paintings. Maes never again attempted a picture on this ambitious scale.
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