The swaddling-clothes of Christ: a medieval relic on display
By Sophie Oosterwijk
Medieval Life, Vol.13 (2000)
Introduction: In the Middle Ages, the most revered relics were those believed to have been in closest contact with Christ, especially when they related to the Passion. However, there were also other popular relics connected with Christ’s infancy, such as his swaddling clothes. Although more than one church claimed to possess this relic, perhaps the most fascinating example is that of Joseph’s hose which are preserved in the cathedral treasury at Aachen, Germany.
The story of Christ’s Nativity has always been extremely popular; whereas the official Gospel accounts offer only scant details, further particulars are to be found in the apocryphal gospels. By the fifteenth century, Early Netherlandish painters were especially keen to depict the Nativity in all its detail, including the story of the incredulous midwife Salome whose hand became withered when she presumed to doubt Mary’s virginity. The fact that the Son of God had been born in such humble circumstances had long been regarded as part of his sacrifice on behalf of mankind, and as such the Nativity in all its particulars became a focus for popular devotion.
Some mystics were greatly inspired by the Virgin’s plight in giving birth to the Saviour under such adverse conditions. In her autobiography, Margery Kempe (c.1373-c.1440) from King’s Lynn recalled how she envisaged herself in her meditations as a nurse first to the Virgin and then to the Christ child, promising the latter that she would swaddle him gently: ‘Lord, I shall fare fayr with 3ow; I schal not byndyn 3ow soor.’ Margery even saw herself begging for white clothes and kerchiefs to swaddle the Virgin’s son in; proper swaddling clothes were apparently lacking for the newborn Christ.