Rich Leonardi over at Over the Rhine and Into the Tiber has links to a very beautiful and fun couple of Renaissance pictures of Mary and Jesus, along with some learned Dominican commentary on the fun.
Traditionally, pictures of Mary and Jesus contain both realistic portrayal of Mary and Jesus’ humanity, intimations of Jesus’ divinity, and foreshadowings of the Passion. In this case, the learned Dominican argues that a laughing Jesus is a foretaste of Christ’s victorious Resurrection, or even of His victorious Second Coming. Baby Jesus is showing us a tiny eucatastrophe that is also a window to the end of time, when we will all rejoice and be glad in Him. But it is shown to us in the most intimate, tender way.
There is joy at the heart of a universe where Creator and creature can be Baby and mommy, and make each other laugh together with smiling, delighted eyes.
You could also argue that a little motherly poking and tickling, and the Baby’s pleasure in it, is also representative of Jesus’ pleasure in His mother’s prayers of intercession, and hence of God’s pleasure when any of His children poke at Him and ask for something. He might laugh a bit or tease us, or squirm over to another way of granting what we asked, but God is not insensitive to our interactions with Him. (Now, we may not see Him react to our prayers. But whether or not He grants them our way or His way, He certainly does not ignore us.)
There is no particular Biblical mention of tickling (no real reason to mention it). However, the Biblical opposite of mourning is laughing, and it is promised that those who mourn will laugh. Generally the Biblical writers talk about God laughing only when He’s mocking the pretensions of the pagans and the wicked, who somehow think they know more and are more powerful than God. Obviously nobody really wants to hear about Jesus laughing in this way! But as Chesterton points out, there certainly are plenty of times when Jesus does seem to be in a happy and humorous mood, whether or not He actually chose to show us that:
“Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall.
“His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something.
“Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something.
“I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”
— Chapter 9, Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.
Classical Roman culture also tended to assume that laughter was usually mocking, and that wit should be appreciated but treated with gravitas. Comedy was something that lowlyborn writers and actors did. As Umberto Eco famously points out in The Name of the Rose, there have been Christian commentators who argued from this Biblical absence of kindly laughter from God, and the not particularly pure nature of Greek and Roman comedy, that no laughter was pleasant and good. (Those would be the overanxious twits.) But following Aristotle, St. Albert and St. Thomas Aquinas (Dominicans!) were both big fans of laughter and play as forms of relaxation for body and mind. Of course a lot of medieval and Renaissance people had good senses of humor. There are a lot of funny true stories about medieval saints (particularly Franciscans), because the truly holy person doesn’t have much to prove.
The usual Latin verbs for “to tickle” are “adtillare” and “titillare,” which latter word also means any form of stimulating or provoking people. Hence “titillate” and the annoying medieval demon humorously blamed for all copying mistakes, Titivillus. But a lot of medieval writers do mention tickling in family life, or between couples.
Btw, stuff about “The Master of the Winking Eyes” is easier to find if you use the Italian version, “Maestro degli Occhi Ammicanti”, or in Ferrara “dagli Occhi Ammicanti.” Apparently “ammicanti” really means something like “crinkled-up” in this case. Most of his work is in Ferrara or Modena. There’s also supposed to be one in New York.
Here’s another crinkle-eyed Mary and Jesus, hugging each other and grinning out at the viewer. Baby Jesus looks a little overheated. He’s wearing a red coral necklace and bracelet, which were common adornments for medieval/Renaissance Italian babies and were believed to have protective or medicinal qualities. (This page also includes other highlights from the exhibition. These are little phone pictures, but good ones.)
Here’s the same work on the webpage of Ferrara’s art museum, its usual home.
The Maestro degli Occhi Ammicanti did some kind of frescoes of Mary, the Child Jesus, and various saints, for the Church of San Giorgio Martire in Modena, Italy. Here’s a picture in black and white and a closeup, also B & W. Here’s another one, of St. Bernardino of Siena.
This church is close to the old ducal palace and is associated with a wonderworking picture/icon hung over the high altar titled “The Blessed Virgin, Helper of the People of Modena.”
Here’s another article about the exhibition. Unfortunately, the reviewer doesn’t seem to realize that a Marian art exhibit held at Christmastime isn’t likely to show Mary by herself, and that it’s a lot easier to maintain goodwill among Protestants if you only show Mary not “alone.” (Because there are people out there who think pictures of Mary-only are a sign of us Catholics revealing our Secrud Pagun Worshup.)
Of course, this person also thinks that Gentileschi is showing Mary just baring her breast, when it’s obvious that it’s Mary preparing her breast for nursing and Baby Jesus zooming in. (And very well done, too.)