Millais: Christ in the House of His Parents

Although at first an apparently mundane domestic scene, this painting, on display as part of the Millais exhibition at Tate Britain until 13 January, is rich in Christian symbolism. The child Jesus is being comforted by the Virgin Mary, having just cut his finger on a nail in his father’s workshop

The blood from the wound drips onto his feet, prefiguring the crucifixion, while the young John the Baptist brings a bowl of water to bathe the wound in anticipation of Christ’s baptism. Through the open door a flock of sheep is peering over the fence and the tools on the back wall represent the triangle of the Holy Trinity.
It is easy to see how the modern viewer might agree with the hostile criticism the painting received in 1850 for showing the Holy Family as ‘too ordinary’.

Every detail of the scene is revealed by Millais’ intense lighting and the painting today continues to provoke reactions of intense dislike or even revulsion. But even if the quasi-photographic realism favoured by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood seems overdone, the family’s ‘ordinariness’ is in fact part of the symbolism of the painting as a whole.

Jesus cries like any other child while his parents console him; the scene could easily show any child or any parents. The Holy Family is meant to be ‘ordinary’, but at the same time is elevated through the overt symbolic content. Of course Jesus suffers like an ordinary child, but his pain is to end in something entirely more significant; in fact, it ends in something wholly extraordinary.