The Naked Baby

Do you remember the political controversy that erupted a few years ago? No, it wasn't over abortion, or gay "marriage," or the disgusting state of Monica Lewinsky's blue dress, which, by the way, is now in the Smithsonian, draped over Archie Bunker's chair. It was instead over a postage stamp -- one that featured the Baby Jesus. The controversy was not one of those tiresome church-state conundrums about whether it was legal to put Jesus on a stamp. Instead, it was about whether it was okay to show the Son of God . . . without a diaper! The stamp reproduced part of a 1712 painting by Italian artist Paolo de Matteis. It featured a blue-robed Madonna gazing down at the Christ child kicking His heels on her lap. But while St. Luke tells us Mary dressed her Son in swaddling clothes, de Matteis didn't dress Him at all -- and that's what threw postal authorities into a tizzy. As columnist Peter Rexford explained in the Washington Times, "someone at the Postal Service thought the Christ child, [minus his] swaddling clothes, was too anatomically explicit." And so, Rexford writes, "with a few strokes of an airbrush," a postal service "artist transformed the child into an asexual being." Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. When the stamp was released, the baby's manhood, so to speak, had been restored. The controversy was more than a modern tempest in a teapot. Since the time of the early Church, artists have struggled to depict both the humanity and divinity of Jesus. Medieval artists tended to focus on Christ's deity. In many a Byzantine church we see mosaics of a stern, majestic Christ coming in judgment. During the Victorian era, artists emphasized Christ's humanity through paintings of the "gentle Jesus." But the greatest religious artists portrayed Christ's deity and humanity -- and that's what de Matteis did. He shows Jesus as a real, human child, squirming in His mother's arms. The artistic purpose of showing the baby naked was to emphasize His full humanity. Mary looks lovingly down on her infant, as mothers throughout the ages do. It's a moving, human scene. Yet the scene also is charged with symbols of Christ's divinity. A halo of light surrounds the baby's head -- a symbol of grace. The halo illuminates the face of His mother, symbolizing the fact that Mary herself is transformed through her Son's grace. The baby's expression is exalted as He gazes, not at His mother, but heavenward. His tiny arms are outstretched in the position of the crucifixion. Mary is wrapping Him in a cloth, an image that anticipates the day she would wrap the body of her crucified Son for burial. The message of the painting is clear: The baby is God in the flesh . . . a divine Child destined one day to die for our sins. This year's Christmas stamp also features a masterpiece by an Italian artist: Lorenzo Monaco. When you attach these government-issued stamps to your Christmas cards, do something that will annoy the ACLU: Use them to help your unsaved friends understand what the painting really communicates -- how it symbolizes an event that took place two thousand years ago in a stable, with the birth of a naked Baby, one who was truly God and truly human. For further reading and information: Today's BreakPoint offer: The How Now Shall We Live? Devotional is a wonderful Christmas gift for loved ones and friends -- and a great way for you to start the new year too! This 365-day devotional will help you live boldly for Christ in today's world. See the 1996 Paolo de Matteis U.S. Postal Service Christmas stamp. See this year's Lorenzo Monaco Christmas stamp.
  1. M. Moore, "The Jesus We Preach at Christmas," Worldview Church, December 2004.
John Fischer, "The Scandal of the Dancing Christ," BreakPoint Online, 2001. David K. Naugle, "'After the End of Art,'Findings, winter 2002/2003. Read the whole issue. Vigen Guroian, "The Temple Transparent: A Gardener's Meditation on the Incarnation of Our Lord," BreakPoint Online, 29 January 2003. Steve Turner, Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts (InterVarsity, 2001). Ned Bustard, ed., It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God (Square Halo Books, 2000).


Chuck Colson



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