The cover of the month
The Most Beautiful of the Children of Men by Pierre-Marie Dumont
A disciple of Bouguereau, Émile Munier (1840–1895) was, like him, an adherent of the academic movement of art, the legacy of Ingres and Corot. This movement advocated a return to classical values and techniques. Challenged by symbolism and impressionism, academism has been derided as “chocolate-box art,” and yet there is nothing less “chocolate-box” than the art of Munier. For he possessed those gifts that seem lacking in the genius of Bouguereau, who was more drawn to grandiloquence than sensitivity and intelligence of the heart.
It must however be recognized that, as charming and touching as they appear, some of Munier’s works are not far from slipping into sentimentalism, indeed mawkishness. It nonetheless remains that most of his portraits of the young attain artistic heights in rendering on canvas the pose of a body, the facial expression, the depth of a gaze that reveals the soul, all captured in his moving depictions of childhood. Munier had the gift of revealing the beauty of childlike souls, which his contemporary Thérèse of Lisieux († 1897), the “Little Flower,” was to embody with such delicate splendor in the sanctorale.
In 1885, for the First Communion of his only daughter, Marie Louise, Munier painted this image of The Child Jesus that adorns the cover of your Magnificat. His daughter was later to say: “My father had a particular knack for amusing children, whom he loved. I once heard him say he was sometimes bored in the company of grown-ups, but never in the company of children, any children. He knew how to bring them out in painting as well as in ordinary life.” And doesn’t the Kingdom of heaven belong to such as these?
This image of the child Jesus invites our meditation on the fact that God the Son spent thirty years of life on earth living with his family, and only three years traveling the roads, teaching, instructing his disciples, and sending them out on mission. But the thirty years spent in Nazareth—over ninety percent of his earthly existence—are in their own right part of his salvific mission. The world was saved through this hidden life of the child Jesus as through the public life of the adult Jesus: it was his whole life, from Mary’s womb right to his death on the cross, that the Son offered up to his Father, for us men and for our salvation. So, when the Tempter urges us to despise our ordinary life, let us contemplate the wonder that is our child-God and recognize that it is first of all in our humble condition, where we find our own vocation, that God makes wonders of our lives.
Jesus (1893), Émile Munier (1840–1895), Private Collection. © Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images.