Monday, December 04, 2006

Christmas wrappings

"And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn."

Georges de la Tour, in addition to giving us a rare exception to the rule that Mary always wears blue, shows us exactly what a swaddled baby Jesus would have looked like. De la Tour would know, since in France swaddling was still customary well into the 19th century when Rousseau wrote this about it:
"The child has hardly left the mother's womb, it has hardly begun to move and stretch its limbs, when it is given new bonds. It is wrapped in swaddling bands, laid down with its head fixed, its legs stretched out, and its arms by its sides; it is wound round with linen and bandages of all sorts so that it cannot move.”
Rousseau was criticizing the practice of swaddling by lazy French mothers who didn’t want to deal with their children so they would wrap them up and leave them unattended, or better yet, hang them by their swaddling bands to a post on the wall. It’s a good thing modern parenting has eliminated this kind of barbarity.

In Jewish custom, swaddling clothes consisted of fabric cut into long thin bands (the term swaddling comes from swath – the width covered by the single cut of a scythe). The bands would be wrapped around a newborn in order to comfort them and give them proper posture. Sometimes the band would first be worn as a girdle around the belly of the pregnant woman, then used to swaddle the child, then saved for the eventual purpose of wrapping the body for burial. Paintings of Christ as a swaddled infant tend to foreshadow his death by showing him sleeping in a kind of haunting stillness. We are meant to see the relationship between the child “wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger" with the body of Jesus "wrapped in linen, laid in a sepulcher that was hewn in stone."

The next time you are in Aachen, Germany, you can visit the reliquary said to hold the original swaddling clothes of Jesus. The relic is a brownish folded piece of fabric. But you can only see it if your visit coincides with its exposure – once every 7 years for 14 days. So you’d better mark your calendars now for June 2007.

When our children were born (all in the same hospital) (not all at the same time) (or was that obvious?) the nurses would do this tricky blanket wrapping job each time they had temporary possession of the baby. I’d let the nurses take a turn while I ate lunch, and when they returned, they’d hand me a tiny mummy with a face. One nurse told me that every hospital has a different swaddling protocol, and nurses that work at more than one hospital have to know them all. I’ll bet they went to special infant-wrapping camps just for training purposes. But it was all a waste as far as I was concerned, because as soon as the nurses left the room I would unwrap my babies. How else was I supposed to admire their toes?


Moobs said...

What a great post.

elasticwaistbandlady said...

All the nurses took training classes at Taco Bell. Wrapping up burritos, wrapping up babies, it's virtually the same technique!

The Baby Holder link made me laugh. A lot. I'm still laughing, in fact, because I'm immature.

I like the way you tie things together from different centuries, to random quotes, to amazing art. You're a one stop shop to completing my goal of learning at least one new thing every day!

Heth said...

Wow they all seemed to be just thrilled about the birth of the Savior. I can just feel the excitment seeping from the painting! (Not even one little smile?)

Love the connection betweent he swaddling clothes and the burial clothes.

Bernita said...

Very good post.

Ann Kroeker said...

Wowzers, you make me laugh and Think Deep Thoughts in the same sentence. Then another sentence comes along--same thing. I end up going through the post having no idea what's coming next--and it works! How do you do that? Not only how do you do that, but how do you do that *daily*?

Jenn said...


Anonymous said...

Swaddle waddle quack qu--

Not to take anything away from the verse or your (seriously, fine) post - but it's a WEIRD word, at least in English. As for how it sounds in other languages, I can't, ha-ha, say.

Julie said...

Thanks. I've been collecting swaddling thoughts in my head for a while. (*Okay, go ahead and insert "stuffing head" jokes here*).

Dang, I wish I had thought of the burrito connection myself. I need to get myself to Taco Bell more often. No, really I don't.

How funny that I never noticed that. In fact, now I'm looking through all of my nativity pictures I see that the people are NEVER smiling. Now there's a curious trend (she says while filing away the idea for a future post). Thanks!

Bernita and Jenn
Thanks. And ditto.

I appreciate your compliment. Can I keep improvising as I go along? I hope so.

Now you've got me swishing swaaah-dul-ling around in my mouth -- playing with the sounds. It is a strange word. (By the way, I'm happy to see you and your lovely shoes again. The absence of your amusing and thoughtful remearks is always a conspicuous one).

Anonymous said...

First thought when looking at the painting: that baby looks dead. What a weird portrayal of a nativity. Ick.

How relieved I was to read on and find out that's exactly what the artist wanted me to see. Phew.

I LOVE LOVE LOVE these posts. I feel smarter just for reading your blog. Thanks! It's like an itty-bitty baby (swaddled?) art history course.

Julie said...

I agree that it takes a way a bit of the creep factor when you know it's meant to be symbolic. De la Tour wasn't the first to do this. Check out Parmigianino's version:

(you may have to cut and paste this link since it's too long)

Anonymous said...

My babies all spend time swaddled for the first couple of months. It really seemed to calm them down and make them feel secure. About the time they could roll over I stopped swaddling them because they stopped liking it. Although I never thought of tying them a little tighter and hanging them from a wall.

--Sandra Tayler

scribbit said...

Yea, I unwrapped and counted fingers and toes. Oh those toes . . . so cute.

Oh and that link made me think of soap on a rope somehow.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the daily humanities lesson! I, too, thought the baby Jesus looked a bit odd and out of proportion, but your explanation makes the painting make more sense.

And I could never figure out how to swaddle my kids so tightly. I must not have the swaddling gene!

LaughingElk said...

Madonna of the Long Link

Here's a working link to Parmigianino, Madonna of the Long Neck

Anonymous said...

Geez, I feel so much smarter for reading your blog! And happier too b/c you have such a great sense of humor and a nifty way to relate art back to real life. I used to swaddle Special K all the time; in fact, I sort of miss it even if she doesn't. LOVED the baby hanger. What a shower gift that would be...

BTW, curious, do you teach classes at the university and I missed that tidbit of info? If so, I'd take it in a heartbeat...if I wasn't a state away. Darn that NM-UT commute!

Anonymous said...

Okay, brain melted b/c yes, you do teach a class. Sorry--I've been writing for about 4 hours straight and can't concentrate well. Anyhoo...don't mind me.