Monday, June 28, 2010

Wrapped Him in Swaddling Clothes

Swaddling clothes consisted of a blanket that was softly wrapped around the baby to keep him warm, and linen bands bound more tightly to keep the blanket in place and the child immobile. Hundreds of thousands of generations of children were swaddled all over the world without any seeming harm or deformity. Apparently it promotes sleep and passivity. They don't cry. They feel safe. It would seem babies need less freedom than we give them. The freedom to thrash their limbs wildly and cry out for someone to hold them, someone who might or might not come, is not all that much appreciated by babies. They like the feeling of being held tightly and safely, of all decisions being made for them, of others being in control. With the baby nice and swaddled, trussed up like a larva, the parents could work. The baby would not begin to look for food until the bands were loosened, so the mother could very much set her own feeding schedule.

Jesus is, of course, the most famous swaddled baby. We hardly ever see him in the full get up, however. Medieval artists would depict a baby in a pretty gown, as worn by an older, mobile child, and renaissance artists progressed to portraying him nude or loosely draped in a cloth. The reason for not showing the confining bands was possibly located in an area of tension between the divine nature of the child and the purpose of swaddling, which was plainly to restrain the baby. Swaddling was also considered necessary to ensure the baby's limbs grew straight, and - some said - to prevent the baby plucking his own eyes out. So it was unseemly to show Jesus in bands. But it was such a part of childbirth - to immediately swaddle the child - whether in Bethlehem, Judea, first century Rome, or tenth century Germany, that it had to be in the Gospel. What sort of a birthing would it be if the baby were left unswaddled?

I love this Madonna and Child by Guariento d'Arpo because it shows the place of swaddling in the average family's life, and it's such a warm and intimate moment between mother and child. It could be any mother and child. It's the primal emotional bond of the human race, that same bond that worked our salvation. Here Mary has finished her work and is now seeing to the baby. She has unwrapped the bands and loosed the underblanket so Jesus can move his limbs. The first thing they do is have a cuddle, cheek to cheek. This is their moment for play. The blanket falls about him in graceful folds, still showing the wrapping pattern over arms and feet.

I sense the painter was a man with happy memories of being swaddled or of his own children in their swaddled phase. I love it. May God save the souls of all the painters who made such images for our delight. Amen.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

And many Russian parents, even today, (at least those in my generation), also swaddle for all the reasons you have given and to keep the baby warm in that terribly cold climate.

Have a happy Fourth!