The sleeping Christ Child lies peacefully on a richly decorated bed. Its left hand rests on a skull that references the crucifixion on Golgotha. The bed is elaborately decorated with ornamental shells, flowers and festoons of fruit, heads of angels and birds. Four putti support the bed on their slight shoulders, like fours figures of Atlas. Stylistically, the opulent ornamentation is comparable to the interior decoration of the church of Igreja de Jesus in the convent of Aveiro, in the north of Portugal. The convent was dissolved in 1874 and, since 1911, has housed the municipal museum.
Sleep is also considered the guardian of eternal youth which is why children are frequently depicted asleep without any other attributes. These small scale sculptures were popular from the 17th century onwards and were inspired by an ivory carving of a small boy created by François Duquesnoy, a netherlandish sculpture acitve in Rome. Without any attributes these little figures are open to many interpretations, such as youth or the sleep of death, and were often associated with the Christ Child.
Since antiquity, sleep and death – Hypnos and Thanatos, twin brothers and ‘children of the dark night’ – have been portrayed as children. Hypnos on his own is shown as a winged youth with the ‘water of forgetfullness’ and poppies. The Athenian sculptor Praxiteles is said to have created him as a sleeping youth. A bronze cast of this ancient work was made that is reputed to have been in the large collection of the patron of the arts, Isabella d’Este, in Mantua, in the 15th century. This work from antiquitiy inspired the many winged putti of the Renaissance. Cupid, the son of Venus, is also depicted as a winged putto, together with his bow and arrows. The motif of a putto with a skull also emerged around this time. The earliest known example is on the reverse of a bronze coin depicting Marc Antony as a boy. The winged putto is leaning on a skull. Next to him is a mourning youth, his hands concealing his face in despair. Above this scene are the words: IO SON FINE (I’m the end’).
The winged putto and skull as an allegory of the transience of time is since to be found in graphic works on paper, painting and sculpture. It is hard to distinguish such depictions from the sleeping Christ Child with a skull – the sole difference to the putto being the lack of wings. The transitions are fluid as is also the case with the Christ Child discussed here: that is not on a cross but bedded on soft cushions. Various iconographic traditions merge here: the Christ Child is not actually lying down but supports its head on its angled arm – a posture often associated with melancholy. Nevertheless the figure seems to be asleep, its eyes are closed. The other hand rests on a skull – that is two things in one: an allegory of mortality and a reference to Christ’s death on the cross. The relaxed facial expression with a smile on its lips is a testimony to the child’s serenity. It accepts its fate and, even in the presence of death, sleeps trustingly. In our figure Christ Child and the putto have come very close to each other in both content and form. The little putti supporting the bed are, interestingly, very unsusual for a traditional cradle scene with the Christ Child and appear more like younger siblings of our sleeping putto.