The Family of Jesus Portrayed in a Controversial Way

While doing some research about John Everett Millais for a tour I was to give at the Winnipeg Art Gallery I came upon this intriguing work of his.  

It shows Jesus in his childhood, a time in his life not really described in any detail in the Bible.  The 1849 painting is called Christ in the House of His Parents.  The painting was very controversial because of the realistic way it portrayed Jesus and his family. Millais set the painting in a carpenter shop that looked very much like a carpenter’s shop in Britain in 1849.  The floor is dirty and full of wood shavings. Millais’ friend William Holman Hunt wrote that Millais spent many days in a cold carpenter’s shop on Oxford Street in London doing sketches for the painting. The writer Charles Dickens penned a scathing essay about the painting saying Millais had painted Mary to look like an alcoholic and Jesus like a blubbering red-headed guttersnipe.  In this detail from the painting, you can see the cut in Jesus’ hand foreshadowing the wounds that will appear there when he is nailed to the cross.  Mary is offering her cheek to Jesus for a kiss. Anne who is Jesus’ grandmother and Mary’s mother is also working in the shop.  Anne is using a pair of pliers to pull out the offending nail that has pierced her grandson’s hand. Joseph is making a door which is laid out on the carpentry work table. He reaches out tenderly to touch his son’s wound.  Can you see the wooden triangle over Jesus’ head? Is it a symbol of the Trinity?  Is the ladder referring to Jacob’s ladder in the Old Testament?  Do you notice the dove representing the Holy Spirit sitting on the ladder?  The boy on the right might be John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin.  He is carrying water. This could be a reference to the way Jesus would later wash his disciples’ feet or it could foreshadow the way John will baptize Jesus in the river Jordan later in their lives. Matthew 3:4 describes the adult John as wearing clothes made of camel-hair fastened with a leather belt. Millais has dressed John that way here.  

Look over to the left at Jesus’ right foot.  Do you see how a drop of blood from his hand had dripped down onto it foreshadowing the way Jesus’ feet will also be wounded on the cross? 

Some art academics have suggested the man on the left represents Jesus’ future apostles or followers.   The sheep in the background might reference the way Jesus was referred to as ‘the lamb of God.’   It might also represent the ‘flock’  of followers Jesus gathered around him. Apparently, Millais went to a butcher shop to get real sheep heads to look at as he painted the sheep.

See the basket that someone is in the process of weaving just left of the young man?  There is one bright flower blooming in the background. Can you see the well in the distance through the window?  Could it allude to the woman Jesus will meet at a well? That encounter will change her life. Does that path we see through the window represent something and is there any significance to the fact that the object on the carpenter’s table is a door? Blogger Nel McCombie says Christ in the House of His Parents was Millais response to the time in which he lived, a time when spirituality was facing a severe threat as social conditions grew worse, and the gap between poor and rich grew wider.  Sound familiar? Millais was trying to combat this by giving ordinary people a Holy Family they could feel involved in and relate to.  I wonder what depictions of the Holy Family do that today?  

Note: Christ in the House of His Parents is in The Tate Britain in London which also has this drawing Millais made before painting the original.  It is kind of interesting to compare the two. 

Other posts……….

Without Him, We Might Not Even Recognize the Name Monet

A Grandmother for Jesus

What Did Jesus Look Like? 


Filed under Art, Religion

4 responses to “The Family of Jesus Portrayed in a Controversial Way

  1. I think that Henry Holiday might have alluded to this painting in one of his illustrations to Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark”. And Millais may have alluded to artwork from the 16th and 17th century:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Andrew Rodgers

    I don’t think there’s any doubt about Millais’ intentions in this painting. The PRB were very interested in prefiguration, the idea that from his birth Christ’s life was mapped out. This is reflected in paintings such as Holman Hunt’s The Shadow of Death (Leeds Art Gallery) which shows Christ stretching his arms, the shadow is the shape of the crucifixion.


  3. Andrew Rodgers

    The ladder refers to the crucifixion, they were used to get Christ onto the cross. Stanley Spencer’s Christ Carrying the Cross (Tate Britain) shows workmen carrying crosses closely following Christ, ready to crucify him.


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