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Giorgione, The Adoration of the Shepherds, oil on panel (1477), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Giorgione, The Adoration of the Shepherds, oil on panel (1477), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The Swaddling Clothes

One of the more remarkable relics on display in the Reliquary Treasury of Dubrovnik Cathedral is the “diaper” of Jesus.  The relic is displayed in a bulky silver reliquary, profusely ornamented with winged figures, clunky arabesques, and other decorative accents.[1] While most translations into English describe the relic as a “diaper” or “diapers,” it could more accurately be described as the “swaddling cloth” or “swaddling clothes” of Jesus.[2]

Veneration of Jesus’ swaddling clothes is more frequently associated with Aachen, Germany, where a more famous set of swaddling garments has been kept since the 13th century.  Housed in the golden Shrine of Saint Mary (Marienshrein) at Aachen Cathedral, the swaddling clothes (Windel Jesu) were rarely put on public display prior to the 14th century.[3]  Since then, the relic has been exhibited in Aachen approximately every seven years.[4]  In comparison, the swaddling clothes kept at Dubrovnik Cathedral are regularly displayed in the cathedral’s astonishing treasury of saintly relics.


Marienschrein (Shrine of Saint Mary), gold (1230-1239), Aachen Cathedral, Aachen, Germany

Christmas Stockings

In a paper on Jesus’ swaddling clothes, Sophie Oosterwijk explains that since antiquity, “medical tradition held that the newborn child might develop deformed limbs if left unswaddled; therefore, swaddling clothes were considered absolutely essential not just for ordinary infants but also for the Christ child.”[5] Consequently, until about the 14th century, depictions of the Nativity commonly showed the infant Jesus tightly swaddled, his face serene in a cloth cocoon.[6]

Some paintings of this period, however, show the infant Jesus unswaddled, presumably mere moments after his birth.  According to one tradition, Jesus’ struggling parents were forced to reuse Joseph’s hose, the only extra cloth they had at hand, as makeshift swaddling clothes.[7]  Paintings inspired by this story frequently portray Joseph removing his shoes and stockings or ripping his hose into strips as Mary waits nearby.  “Mary, take my hose and wind your dear baby in them,” Joseph tells Mary in an early 15th century Nativity painting from a church in Lezignan.[8]  In another, Joseph seated on the ground with one bare foot extended, carefully cuts his hose into strips with a knife while a recumbent Mary watches from a mattress.[9]  Rogier van der Weyden’s famous Columba Altarpiece has also been tied to this tradition, though Joseph’s stockings are portrayed more subtly:  two squares of cloth laid in Jesus’ manger have been interpreted as Joseph’s repurposed hose.[10]

Joseph Malouel?, Nativity, oil on tempera (c. 1400), Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp, Belgium (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Joseph Malouel?, Nativity, oil on tempera (c. 1400), Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp, Belgium (courtesy Wikimedia Commons). Here, Joseph can be seen cutting one of his stockings with a knife as Mary watches and the infant Jesus waits in a manger.

As Oosterwijk observes, the tradition of Joseph and his hose “illustrates the medieval need to explain the details of the Virgin’s reported confinement far away from the comfort of a regular nursery . . . , thus emphasizing Christ’s humility.  Instead, it is Joseph in his role of the family provider, rather than that of a natural father, who finds the solution for the lack of swaddling clothes by donating his own hose to cover the newborn Christ with in the cold winter night.”[11]

Adoration of the Magi (panel detail), Columba Altarpiece, oil on oak (c. 1455), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.

Adoration of the Magi (panel detail), Columba Altarpiece, oil on oak (c. 1455), Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.  The two squares of cloth padding the manger at left have been interpreted as Joseph’s hose.

God and Man

A curious book titled Excrement in the Late Middle Ages further explores the history and deeper theological meaning of Jesus’ swaddling clothes.  As the author, Susan Signe Morrison, notes, while stories about the baby Jesus’s swaddling clothes may seem “obscene or blasphemous,” they were, in fact, “produced within the confines of the sacred.”[12]  Miracles associated with Jesus’ swaddling clothes were described in the First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ — a work condemned as heretical in the fifth century — and in stories describing the return of the Wise Men to their home countries.

Returning to the Christmas story as told in Luke 2:12, Morrison explains that Jesus’s swaddling clothes were provided “not just to keep him warm or to bind him in an imitation of the closeness of the womb.”[13]  Rather, “[t]he clothes clearly perform a key function:  to collect the filth the human baby ejects.”[14]  Morrison further explains that the “enfleshing of Christ is both most sacred (he became man to save us) and most profane (he took on the flesh that emits filth for us).”  Morrison concludes, “To be human is to eat; to be fully human, God must digest just as a human does.  As Tertullian argued, by taking on the filthy human body, Christ signals his profound humility and compassion.  God has divested himself of his omnipotence; what more overt way to do this than to become a helpless, wriggling, filthy infant, utterly dependent upon others for nourishment, shelter, and personal hygiene?”[15]

Madonna and Child

Bernardino Luini, The Madonna of the Carnation, oil on panel (c. 1515), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

[1]  See, e.g., Ante Dračevac, La Cathedrale de Dubrovnik 50 (Françoise Kveder trans., 1988). Dating to the 16th century, the reliquary is the work of local Dubrovnik metalsmiths.  Id.

[2]  For example, an older guide to the cathedral, translated into French and no longer in print, describes the relic as “des langes de Jésus.”  Id.

[3]  Joan Carroll Cruz, Relics 23 (1984).

[4]  Id.

[5]  Sophie Oosterwijk, The Swaddling-Clothes of Christ:  A Medieval Relic on Display, 13 Medieval Life 25-30 (2000).

[6]  See id. at 25.

[7]  Incidentally, Saint Joseph’s hose is also purportedly stored in the Marienshrein, along with Jesus’ swaddling clothes, the robe of Saint Mary, and the beheading cloth of Saint John the Baptist.  Photographs of all four relics, which comprise the four great relics of the Marienschrein, can be found here.

[8]  Gail McMurray Gibson, “St. Margery:  The Book of Margery Kempe,” in Equally in God’s Image:  Women in the Middle Ages 152 (Julia Bolton Holloway et al., eds., 1990).

[9]  The painting is the Nativity panel of a polyptych by an unknown artist, possibly Jean Malouel, painted c. 1400.

[10]  See, e.g., Oosterwijk, supra note 5, at 28.

[11]  Id.

[12]  Susan Signe Morrison, Excrement in the Late Middle Ages: Sacred Filth and Chaucer’s Fecopoetics 92 (2009).

[13]  Id. at 93.

[14]  Id.

[15]  Id. (internal citations omitted).