Once again I found myself among the finest artefacts gathered by the British Museum; I felt as if I had been in the middle of piled or scattered volumes, surrounding me and calling for being opened and read. Walking up and down between all the museal objects, without paying them enough attention, would be like skipping pages of those books and missing their stories. It is worth thus choosing one and read it from cover to cover.
Room 40 in the British Museum
At that time, the Room 40 of the Medieval Europe galleries was my destination for homework; I was studying one of the core modules of Medieval Cultures at Birkbeck College and was analysing medieval artefacts preserved by the Museum for the following class. There were just few people around so I decided to squat on the floor and making my notes in front of ‘my homework’. Those were eight red clay tiles resembling large domino blocks of 33 centimetres long and 16 centimetres wide, but without black dots (The British Museum I 2021).
Instead, there were intriguing medieval representations of apocrypha scenes related to the unknown events of Jesus Christ’s lifetime, which is not recorded in the canonical Bible (Robinson et al. 2008:118; Casey 2007:1). Such artistic documents do not only seem uncommon in traditional representations of the Christ but may be also provocative in their interpretations (Casey 2007:1). First of all, the official image of Jesus known from the writings and art stand here in sharp contrast to the illustration of Christ provided by the tiles, especially because they depict and regard Him as a Child at the age between five and twelve (Ibid.:1). Such images, however, do not belong to a canonical tradition of the Gospels but are taken possibly from the anonymous second century’s Apocryphal Infancy of Christ Gospels, translated into art in the form of the earthenware rectangular tiles in the fourteenth century AD., precisely circa 1330 (Casey 2007:1; The British Museum I 2021).
Biblical story of the Child Jesus
The four Gospels written by tradition by the Evangelists, Saint Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the only recognized source of Christ’s life and ministry (Robinson et al. 2008:118).
According to the Evangelists, Saint Luke and Saint Matthew, the Holy Family, after their stay in Egypt, returned to Nazareth in Galilee (Rops 1944:109). Little Christ’s homeland was just that little town, white and green, situated on the slope of the rolling hills that enclose the Jezreel Valley to the north (Ibid.:111). The streets and houses of Nazareth are like all the streets and houses of the East (Ibid.:111). The city is only distinguished by the number of its churches, monasteries and bell towers; it is surrounded by a semi-circle of gently rolling hills dotted with villages with houses made of white clay (Rops 1944:111). Among the olives, the vineyards and grain fields, bullets of black cypress trees shoot up into the sky (Ibid.:111). The gardens of Nazareth are full of lilies and verbenas, and on many walls of its houses, juicy flowers of bougainvillea spread their covers in the colour of episcopal purple (Ibid.:111). It was in this environment that Jesus the Child grew up (Ibid.:111). However, one should not imagine him under the very graceful figure represented by a late antique statue from the fourth century, known as Jesus the Teacher, preserved in the National Museum of Baths of Diocletian in Rome: he is represented there too calm, too well-mannered, and hieratic in his long pleated tunic (Ibid.:111). Rather, it should be assumed that little Jesus looked like one of those lively, nervous kids that one still meets on the roads of Palestine, lightly dressed, barefoot, with an expression of great intelligence on passionate and serious faces (Ibid.:111).
The House of the Holy Family
The life of the Holy Family, whose secrets so many painters wanted to represent, was passing in one of the modest houses of Nazareth, one of those that can still be seen today (Rops 1944:111). There is usually only one room inside them; there is a sweet smell of oil in the air; smoke from the fire often comes out only through the door; in the evening, a clay lamp placed on an iron candle, or on a stone protruding from the wall, casts a dim light (Ibid.:111).
In the modern town of Nazareth, there are plenty of monuments ascribed to the times of Christ Child: the Basilica of Annunciation with said remains of the house of the Virgin Mary, the Mary’s Well or Joseph’s workshop. Based on various archaeological excavations, it is assumed the Holy Family’s house looked like the one in which the Archangel Gabriel announced Mary she would conceive and bear the Son of God (today overbuilt with the walls of the Basilica of the Annunciation); it was probably largely underground, embedded in the soft local limestone; God’s Child was to walk up its rather primitive stairs, in the contemporary Basilica, they are today decorated with mosaics (Rops 1944:111-112).
Jesus received the education that all young Israelites received; it seems that at that time there were whole cycles of studies described by the Talmud (Rops 1944:112). They were dependent on the synagogue, and they were led by a hassan, someone like a sacristan, perhaps the administrator of a venerable place, where the faithful gathered (Ibid.:112). In the bejt-haseter, an elementary school, boys, sitting around the great scroll of the Law, repeated the verses of the Torah in chorus until they had memorized them perfectly (Ibid.:112).
Probably, the adolescent Jesus did not pursue further studies in one of the rabbinical schools that existed near Nazareth (Ibid.:112). This assumption is supported by an openly expressed amazement of Jesus’ family members and acquaintances who heard his wise preaching in God’s matters (Ibid.:112).
Finding in the Temple
Jesus, therefore, grew up in Nazareth living in a modest house with his mother and adoptive father, Joseph, and after his death, He lived in the company of numerous cousins (Rops 1944:113). The canonical messages regarding this period are limited (Ibid.:113): “And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him” (Luke 2:40). And only one episode of this time is known from the Bible; namely, the one that happened in the twelfth year of Jesus’ life, when a young Jew was becoming a man and a “son” of the Law (Ibid.:113).
The event in question is the famous scene from the Temple; Mary and Joseph, as devout Jews, went to Jerusalem every year for the Passover (Rops 1944:113). Perhaps for the first time they took the Son with them (Ibid.:113). In the evening of the first day of their journey back, Joseph and Mary were looking for Jesus among their friends and relatives (Ibid.:114). They did not him all day, but assumed that he had joined some group of relatives or friends (Ibid.:114). Extremely worried, they returned to Jerusalem and it took them three days to finally find Him in the Temple (Ibid.:114). In its cloisters, surrounded by a circle of students, the wise men taught; the children squeezed into the crowd of listeners and were sometimes allowed to ask questions (Ibid.:114).
The twelve-year-old Jesus, however, was not among the listeners but sat among the wise men of Israel (Rops 1944:114), and “[everyone] who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). “When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you ‘.’ Why were you searching for me? ‘ [Jesus] asked. ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ “(Luke 2: 48-49). Jesus’ words show that He is fully aware of his mission. There is also the teaching of the Gospel that whoever wants to follow Christ must sever all human ties and bonds (Ibid.:114).
‘Unofficial’ God’s life
This one and only event in Jesus’ childhood, described in detail in the Bible, though so eloquent, has not satisfied yet the curiosity of the crowds since the first centuries of Christianity through the Middle Ages to the present day (Rops 1944:114).
There are yet other ancient records of Christ’s life but apocryphal, that is to say officially rejected from the standard Bible, though not sanctioned by the Church (Robinson et al. 2008:118). “In everyday conversation ‘apocryphal’ refers to a story of doubtful authenticity, but one that is nevertheless told frequently, perhaps even believed widely. The New Testament apocrypha are books accepted by neither Catholic nor Protestant faiths, although artists and theologians have used them as sources of information and ideas” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown). Especially in the Middle Ages, the apocrypha was used to elaborate on gaps in the Gospel stories, which were thought fairly sparse in details about the life of Christ (Robinson et al. 2008:118; see Casey 2007; Austin Date unknown). “Apocryphal stories, [such as the one] based on the dream of Pilate’s wife, […] or of the forging of the nails for Christ’s crucifixion were [therefore] incorporated into medieval mystery plays and were an integral part of the imaginative religious experience” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). The light and colour used in the art of churches and cathedrals additionally embellished the words heard from priests during their homilies; by various artistic expressions, people who everyday experienced poor and hard conditions, could admire the splendour and dignity of the image of the mighty and omnipresent God who yet became Man and suffered for the sins of mankind. At the time, when Biblical stories were accessed in paintings and sculpture for the illiterate populace, their main characters were treated similarly to modern celebrities, and like today, common people wished to know more details about their lives than the official version of the Church was able to offer.
Jesus between His years five and twelve
“One of the most frustrating absences in the Gospels is the early years of Christ’s life, [that id to say when He is between five and twelve. In the Bible, “Christ is encountered as an infant and then later as an adolescent disputing with the doctors of the law in the Temple but no mention is made of His upbringing or his relationship with his parents” (Robinson et al. 2008:118).
In the eyes of contemporary people, this gap had successfully been complemented by the apocryphal Infancy Gospels, believed to have been written anonymously by early Christians from the second century AD., who imaginatively tried to create their own fictional version of what Jesus’ childhood might have been like (Casey 2007:3). Yet these imaginary pictures were quite successfully interwoven with the canonical portrayal of Jesus’ life (Ibid.:3-4). Simultaneously, the apocrypha author built up the stories around their own experiences in the process of the development of Christianity (Ibid.:3; see Elliott ed. 2005).
Anecdotes about the Christ’s Childhood
Surely, the Infancy Gospels had circulated in oral tradition before a series of their written compilations appeared (Casey 2007:4). From the very beginning, however, all of them shared several cohesive narrative elements (Ibid.:4). Central to this genre is the Gospel of Thomas dating back to the second century (Ibid.:4). It “describes the doings of Jesus during his boyhood, no record of which exists in the canonical gospels. According to Thomas, Jesus proved to be an infant prodigy at school, instructing his teachers in the unsuspected mysteries of the alphabet and astonishing his family and friends by the miracles that he performed” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown). The Infancy Gospels tell a lot of different anecdotes about this unknown period of Christ’ childhood (Rops 1944:114-115). Some of them are famous and charming; Jesus, playing with His companions, makes birds out of clay, and then gives them life, and when He claps his hands, the wonderful creatures start flying in the air (Ibid.:115). Jesus is also playing with the other children at the entrance to the grotto, and then suddenly two huge snakes come out of it; the joyful flock runs away screaming, only Jesus remains and calmly orders the dangerous beasts to place their heads under the feet of His Mother, Mary (Ibid.:115).
The Apocrypha also attributes many miracles to Christ Child (Rops 1944:115). Many of them are modelled on the miracles of the canonical Gospels; they tell that one seed Child Jesus planted is enough to feed an entire city in times of famine (Ibid.:115). Another time, the Apocrypha depict the young worker who is resurrected by Christ (Ibid.:115). Other miracles are rather magical; Jesus, riding the mule, turns the spell on him and the animal becomes a beautiful youth again (Ibid.:115). Another miracle tells that as the little Christ calls out, the salted fish begins to roll and flutter (Ibid.:115). Another time at school, when a teacher starts teaching Jesus the alphabet, the Child proves that he can do it, even though he has not learned it before (Ibid.:115).
Other apocryphal miracles can seem utterly repulsive while being attributed to the Son of God; when the same teacher wants to punish his rebellious Student, he sees at once that his hand is withered (Rops 1944:115). In turn, to show off His power to His playmates, Jesus turns one of them into a ram, another, who poked Him, becomes stroke dead (Ibid.:115).
Apocrypha in art
In the eighth or ninth centuries, the Gospel of Thomas was furthermore compiled with the Protevangelium of James, including the Apocrypha of the Virgin Mary (Casey 2007:4). As such, it formed the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (Ibid.:4; see Elliott ed. 2005). And when the cult of the Virgin Mary had grown since the twelfth century, an interest in her Parents’ lives and the Holy Family with the Christ Child in the center also raised, and so did the interest in the Apocrypha, which was mainly reflected through art in the whole Christian world (Robinson et al. 2008:118). As such all these, more or less known apocryphal fairy tales served especially as a source of inspiration for the painters and sculptors of the Middle Ages; paintings and mosaics of small churches and images of Gothic cathedrals are full of memories of these Christian legends (Rops 1944:115).
It is enough to mention a set of wall paintings created inside the Nubian church of Faras, with the representations known ultimately from the Apocrypha. Among them, there is the eight century’s famous representation of the Virgin Mary’s Mother, Saint Anne with her mysterious gesture of pointing her index finger to the lips (see: Saint Anne of Nubia – “it will make you speechless”.). “Scenes such as these are [also] depicted in the [fourteenth century’s] Tring Tiles” (Austin “Footnote” Date unknown).
Medieval apocryphal writings
With the late twelfth century, an increased fascinations with the humanity of the Christ, especially with His childhood, had further inspired the creation of a large number of manuscripts, which mainly originated from the writings of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, many of which were written in vernacular languages (Casey 2007:4). Such extensive compilation of the Infancy stories, along with the French manuscript Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38.8 (circa 1325), combined of the Anglo-Norman manuscript, Les Enfaunces de Jesu Crist and an Apocalypse manuscript, were apparently the foundations of the now lost model for the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:4-5). Although the Bodleian MS. Selden Supra 38.8 is the most complete medieval illuminated manuscript with the Infancy Gospel stories, its illustrated simple and miniature figures significantly vary with the style of highly expressive and highly caricatured images on the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:5).
Red clay tiles
The Tring Tiles, ceramic pieces of 3,5 centimetres in thickness, were made in the technique known as sgraffito, an expensive hand-worked process popular especially in France (The British Museum I 2021; Austin Date unknown), which involves “decorating ceramics [where] a substrate, usually ‘slip’, is incised to reveal the contrasting ground underneath” (The British Museum I 2021). Obtained in this way slip-decorated designs on the tiles were additionally lead-glazed (Ibid.). The group of tiles was uncovered during the late Victorian (the mid-nineteenth century) restoration of Tring Parish Church in Hertfordshire, which has given the tiles its name (Casey 2007:7; Austin Date unknown).
“Although the tiles were, for the most part, found in a curiosity shop in Tring” (Munday 2018), it is not sure if they had originally been laid down in the church or only preserved or applied there after being moved from elsewhere, even from abroad (Austin Date unknown; Munday 2018). “More research into the origins of the tiles needs to be done, for the mystery is still far from solved” (Ibid.). Nevertheless, “the peculiar character of their sgraffito design, may suggest that they were produced in the east of England, where this technique was popular on pottery” (British Museum II 2021).
Having been found, the tiles were continuously passed through many hands before achieving their final place: nowadays, ten complete tiles and a few fragments are known of which the eight are preserved in the British Museum and the two, saved by a local resident, are displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum (The British Museum I 2021; Casey 2007:7-8; Austin Date unknown). Still their number is not complete; the tiles must have been part of a much larger scheme, unfortunately now lost (Robinson et al. 2008:118). Their condition is surprisingly good, and for this reason, it is believed that the tiles had never been walked on in a pavement of the church floor but were possibly used as a frieze set on the walls of the chancel (Austin Date unknown; the British Museum I 2021).
Medieval comic strip
Today, the Tring Tiles are remarkable survivals witnessing the devotional curiosity of the Middle Ages with the Christ’s childhood (Robinson et al. 2008:118) and a clear reflection of “the resurgence in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries of Christianity’s focus on the humanity of Christ” (Casey 2007:2). “The scenes [on the tiles] are arranged in pairs [except for one of the canonical character], in a composition that resembles a modern-day comic strip” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). There are more traditional Christian miracles, such as a multiplication of food (Casey 2007:1): “planting a single grain of wheat, which immediately produces an entire crop for the poor to harvest” (Ibid.:1). There is equally a scene showing “healing the lame and the injured” (Ibid.:1).
Christ is obviously the driving force of all these miracles. Still He is also the hero of more humoristic but confrontational scenes while He is depicted “at play, [often resulting in fatal accidents], working in the fields or in the carpenter’s workshop, at school, and, occasionally, in trouble” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). On the whole, the “[stories] told by the tiles are drawn from the ordinary activities of children, though enriched by a miraculous element” (The British Museum II 2021), which, on the other hand, “struggle [to show] the notion of a child at once human and divine”(Robinson et al. 2008:118).
Consequently, the angelic face of the Child Jesus, as drawn on holy pictures in the Church, as much as in the Tring Tiles (Casey 2007:2) “may belie the strangeness of his actions” (Ibid.:2); the Christ Child behaves as an average boy but granted with supernatural powers that he openly uses not only in good intentions but also for his own, rather selfish purposes; if the author of the Apocrypha “was to humanize the Christ Child, he went to such [extremes in Jesus’ behaviour] that centuries of Popes, Church Fathers, theologians and scholars have dismissed the stories as incorrect, […] exaggerated [and even heretic, as they declare] the [Child] Jesus to be rude, vindictive, unruly, and ‘non-Christian’” (Ibid.:3).
Mediation of the Virgin Mary
Such an attitude of the Church is not surprising; in the apocryphal legends, also illustrated on the Tring Tiles, Jesus transforms other boys into pigs and even kills his colleagues and a Jewish teacher for offending Him, after which, however, He restores them either to the previous state or even to life, especially on the initiative of His Mother, Saint Mary, who asks Him for mercy on behalf of the people and, in every instance, the intercession of the Virgin Mary sees the return to normality (Robinson et al. 2008:118; Casey 2007:1; Munday 2018).
Sometimes, the Virgin is represented as if She rebuked Her Son for His bad behaviour towards humans (Casey 2007:15) or even as if “it was the Virgin, not [Her Son], who restores order after a death or some other catastrophe” (Munday 2018). Such an illustration of the Jesus’s Mother shows the cult of the Virgin Mary at its height and underlines Her increasing, almost godlike power in the Christian tradition (Munday 2018; Casey 2007:15). Despite the negative reaction of the Church officials’ towards the Infancy Gospels, the Church simultaneously remained quite tolerant when it comes to a growing popularity of such stories among the lay Christian populace, and while they were being consecutively repeated in multiplying images created by artists in religious art, like those depicted on the Tring Tiles (Casey 2007:3).
Starting with a miracle
I decided to start analyzing the objects from up down; consequently, I looked up at the uppermost tile in the showcase covered with glass. It displays two, rather unrelated scenes; the first one shows a cart drawn by one horse and two peasants harvesting a field of wheat, miraculously grown from the one grain which Jesus has planted (Fig.1A) (Casey 2007:27,39). In Pseudo-Matthew and Selden Supra 38 the grain is barley (Ibid.:27). The tile with the preceding scene of Christ sowing and multiplying His Mother’s grain is lost. Missing scenes obviously disturb the continuity of the story represented on the Tring Tiles. Although they can be easily complemented and retold by means of the written versions of the Infancy Gospels, the tile showing the reaping of wheat miraculously multiplied to a vast amount still remains combined with an unconnected accident, namely Fathers and Jesus at oven (Fig.1B) (Ibid.:39).
The latter scene (Fig.1B) shows three parents of Jesus’ colleagues who “are reluctant for their children to play with Jesus [and thus] often [implement] extreme measures to prevent [His] contact with [their children]” (Robinson et al. 2008:118). In the scene, they are standing with Jesus Child in front of an oven, pointing to it.
The medieval Infancy Gospels say that the parents have just hid their children in the oven away from Jesus only to find them later transformed by Him into pigs, when they finally open it (Robinson et al. 2008:118). “Missing from the extant Tring Tiles is the pig-children’s culminating escape from the oven, but this dramatic scene would undoubtedly have been part of the original tile series” (Casey 2007:38). The story is not a part of Greek and Latin texts of the apocryphal Gospels of Thomas or Pseudo-Matthew (Ibid.: 38). Yet it may have originally been included in one of the early versions of Gospels of Thomas, from which it was removed for being too ‘unpleasant’ (Ibid.:38). Anyway, it reappears in early apocryphal literature of the Arabic Infancy Gospel but the boys there are transformed not into pigs but into goats (Ibid.:38). “The exchange of the pigs for goats has been attributed to a […] Jewish aversion to pork, a restriction shared with Islam” (Ibid.:40).
Another reason may be the historic antisemitic association of Jews with pigs or an Islamic notion (Casey 2007:40), according to which “Jews [and] Christians were once punished by being transformed into pigs and apes” (Ibid.:40). Nevertheless, the story with the boys transformed into pigs already appears in medieval Christian manuscripts and so must equally have been included in the lost model for the Tring Tiles (Ibid.:38-39).
Privileged animals, a miracle, and the Crown for the Virgin Mary
In the lower row, there are two tiles; one from the left portrays jumping and apparently happy lion cubs, accompanied by Child Jesus, His Mother Mary and Joseph, and two Jews further behind them (Fig.2A) (Austin Date Unknown). The scene is to express the fact that in contrast to Jews, animals are able to recognize Jesus as the Son of God (Ibid.). In the scene, “Mary’s appearance reflects the evolution of the Cult of the Virgin by the early fourteenth century as she is portrayed in elegant Gothic dress, wearing the crown of the Queen of Heaven, as opposed to her depiction in Selden Supra 38, where she is seated, holding a book, with a shawl over her head” (Casey 2007:15).
Next scene on the same tile (Fig.2B) is the first of the three (two more are shown on the next tile in the same row: Fig.3A&B) illustrating Christ’s miracle of mending the broken plough. In the first scene (Fig.2B), a workmen is scolded by his master for breaking or cutting a plough beam too short (Priory Tiles 2021). Jesus observes the incident and eagerly helps to fix the tool; He miraculously repairs the beam (Fig.3A), which can be successfully applied again in ploughing the fields (Fig.3B).
Culmination of the story in the middle
Below the second row, there is only one tile in the middle, which actually should be the culmination of the series (Fig.4: feature image) (Robinson et al. 2008:118). It is the only scene which occupies a full tile, which stands for its significance, and illustrates Christ’s first official miracle at the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus changes water to wine (John 2:1-11) (Robinson et al. 2008:118; Casey 2007:46).
By these means, the ‘unofficial’ life of Christ naturally complements the canonical version (Casey 2007:46). Moreover, including the biblical scene in the series of formally rejected stories also “[lends] an air of legitimacy to the marginalized apocryphal Infancy Gospels“ (Casey 2007:46).
Death and resurrection
The successive row of the tiles below again displays two of them with four related scenes. Starting from the episode on the left (Fig.5A), Child Jesus is shown playing alone a “game of making pools on the banks of the river Jordan, which is [suddenly] disturbed by a [bad Jewish boy] who destroys them: the bully promptly falls down dead” (Robinson et al. 2008:118; see Casey 2007:46). “Likewise, [in the first scene on the right side tile (Fig.6A)], when a fellow pupil jumps on Christ’s back in a playful attack, he is struck down, [in front of seated Zacharias]. In both cases instant dead is shown by the figures being flipped upside down” (Robinson et al. 2008:118).
In the second scene of the first tile (Fig.5B), Saint Mary with the crown on Her head admonishes Jesus for killing the boy (Casey 2007:15). She puts “her hand on Jesus’ back, encouraging him to rejuvenate the dead boy” (Ibid.:15). Although Jesus still curses the Jewish colleague, He revives the boy, yet underlying that he does so only for Her Mother’s sake (Ibid.:15).
In the second tile, in the left side scene (Fig.6A), “Zacharias is hieratically seated on an elevated bench, holding a book […], his head capped with a stalked beret, a style seen frequently on Jewish scholars. He looks beyond Jesus to exchange gestures and glances with the Bad Boy, implying a possible collusion between the teacher and the boy, and reminding viewers of the Christian assertion that the Jews were blind to Christ [as it is also underlined in the scene showing lion cubs]. The exaggerated, yet comical, antisemitic caricature of Zacharias’ visage does not suggest a man of wisdom” (Casey 2007:20).
Written versions of the Infancy Gospels also adds that “Jesus starts lecturing [Zacharias], pointing out the teacher’s ignorance, in contrast to Jesus’ superior knowledge” (Ibid.:20). The compression of the two successive events in a single scene, with Jesus and the boy jumping on His back, and the Bad Boy seen again upside down behind the first group was a typical artistic practice in the medieval art, also observed in a comic strip. Having killed the boy, Jesus again appeared in the right scene accompanied by Joseph who is standing in front of the Bad Boy’s annoyed parents, trying to calm them down (Ibid.:17,19). Meantime, Jesus restores their son back to life (Casey 2007:17; Robinson et al. 2008:118).
At the bottom of the showcase there is the last row of the two tiles; “[they] continue the polemic between Christianity and Judaism” (Casey 2007:36). The one on the right side shows in the first scene (Fig.7A), a father who has just locked his son in a tower with a huge key, “to protect him from the ‘accidents’ which seemed to occur when children play with Jesus” (Ibid.:36). However, already in the second scene (Fig.7B) “Christ miraculously pulls the boy through the lock” (Robinson et al. 2008:118).
The symbol of a tower seems significant as it used to be an important feature of medieval Anglo-Jewish co-existence (Casey 2007:37). In England, the tower was a place of refuge for Jews or, like the Tower of London, it was used to imprison and execute them (Ibid.:37). “At times, Jews saved their lives by converting [to Christianity] while they were imprisoned […]” (Ibid.:37-38). The tile illustrating the tower may metaphorically symbolize such a conversion of the released boy, who was eventually set free by Jesus Himself.
Again in school
“Following an interlude of [those two Tring Tile scenes, in the left side scene of the second tile], Jesus appears [again in school (Fig.8A). He is standing in front of] a second teacher, a bearded Levi, seated on a bench with his legs crossed. This teacher also attempts to instruct Jesus, but Jesus rejects the teacher’s instructions, exhibiting his knowledge […] and […] the extent of his wisdom” (Casey 2007:20). As a result, “the teacher scolds him for his insolence, and slaps him” (Ibid.:21). In this scene, there also appears the mentioned practice of duplicating the same character in order to present it at a later stage of events, being the aftermath of the previous one.
Consequently, behind the ‘first’ representation of the Christ Child, “[the] second figure of Jesus shows [Him again] responding to the teacher, as he in turn, scolds the Hebrew master” (Casey 2007:21). The right side of the same tile (Fig.8B) further illustrates Jesus who is still engaged in preaching but this time there are two teachers seated in front of him (Ibid.:31). Behind Jesus, there are two lame people whom only Jesus, and not the teachers, can heal. “The compositional placement of the teacher [or teachers] seated on the left and Jesus standing on the right appears [in all such scenes and may be symbolically related to the right side associated with good, and the left with evil]”(Ibid.:20).
By observing and analysing the artefacts behind the glass, I understood that the Tring Tiles not only illustrate the apocryphal Infancy Gospels to fill in the gaps in the biblical stories, but also to reflect tense and difficult Jewish-Christian relations in medieval England, where there was the supremacy of Christianity over Judaism, especially because Jews reminded blind to Jesus’ teaching; “the stories [represented on the tiles], sometimes not so subtly, reflect the conflicts that existed between Jews and Christians [already] in the early years of the new faith when both groups proclaimed the predominance and superiority of their beliefs, while competing over converts. The stereotypical, [even caricatured, depictions] of the Jewish figures, [usually featuring huge noses and bulging eyes] in the scenes on the Tring Tiles, reminds […] that these conflicts still existed in the minds of the fourteenth century English, even though King Edward [the First] had expelled all Jews from England in 1290” (Casey 2007:1-2).
Two other tiles
In the Middle Ages, “from the Jewish perspective, the fathers in both the tower and the oven stories would have recognized the need to hide their children from Jesus, not just for their physical safety, but to protect them from the threat of medieval Christians who attempted to convert [Jews] to Christianity” (Casey 2007:41).
Images depicted on the two missing Tring Tiles, displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum illustrate such conversions among Jewish children (Casey 2007:41-42). The first tile (Fig.9A) shows kneeling boys and Jesus preaching or blessing them in the first scene (Ibid.:41). The same composition reappears on the second tile, on its right side (Fig.10B) (Ibid.:41-42). “These images show [obedient] children, as Jesus’ blessing gesture suggests that he is fulfilling his mission and converting the children” (Ibid.:41); moreover, the “repetition of [the] image of kneeling children (Fig.9A and 10B) suggests a special emphasis on conversion” (Ibid.:42). The Infancy Gospels also read that Child Jesus “revives and blesses his playmates, after they accidentally fall while attempting to follow him as he jumped from hill to hill and slid down a sunbeam” (Ibid.:41). This underlines “the importance of Jesus’ life-saving power, even though following his lead can be difficult” (Ibid.:42).
The second scene on the first tile (Fig.9B) is also related to the theme of conversion. Jesus and boys are at well (Casey 2007:42); while one figure is using a pitcher to draw water from it, others carry the pitchers, already full or empty, on their shoulders.
This is probably a reference to the baptism following the conversion. It also brings to mind the Gospel scene in which the adult Jesus talks by a well with a Samaritan woman who consequently experiences conversion (John 4: 5-42). Jesus then said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10).
‘Convert or die’ threat
The first scene of the second tile (Fig.10A) shows in turn Joseph and the children’s parents who have just witnessed Jesus’ ability to revive their dead children (Casey 2007:41-42). The one standing just in front of Joseph seems angry, yet others behind them look like wondering at Jesus’ miraculous powers (Ibid.:41).
Although those tile scenes show that the miraculously restored to life Jewish children were converted, in contemporary England, it was also “a reminder of the ‘convert or die’ threat often faced by Jews. […] In reality, the attempted conversion failed after a two-century effort which ended in [their] expulsion of 1290” (Casey 2007:42).
The Humanity of God
It was almost one hour, I was squatting on the floor in front of the tiles. The scenes drawn on them were both, informative and touching; not only do they portray politics, ethnic and religious conflicts in medieval England but also a strong desire of contemporary people to approach their God closer in His Humanity by observing Him as a human Child with miraculous powers, yet with flaws typical of common children. I also understood that the ten preserved Tring Tiles of the whole larger series would not give all the answers to the questions posed without the written versions of the Infancy Gospels, in turn, filling gaps in the missing stories expressed in art. And although apocrypha does not deepen the canonical knowledge of God’s Child as represented on the Tring Tiles (Rops 1944:115), they do reveal mankind’s desire to find human nature, with all of its aspects, in the Divine.
So deep in my thoughts I hardly noticed there was a group of visitors gathering in the Room 40 and trying to approach the object of my study. I quickly gathered my notes from the floor, stood up and sent my last glance at the red tiles. ‘To be continued during the lecture’, I thought.
Featured image: The Wedding Feast at Cana (Fig.4), represented in one of the Tring Tiles. First quarter of the fourteenth century, England. The British Museum; Room 40 of the Medieval Galleries. Image cropped. Photo source: Wendy Austin (Date unknown; accessed on 23rd January, 2021). The Mystery of the Tring Tiles.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology;
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
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