Hidden in the southwest corner of Room 40 at the British Museum is one of my absolute favourite artefacts: a series of tiles that look very much like a comic strip, but are actually 700 years old.
The tiles are incredibly rare. In fact, they’re one of only a handful of artefacts that depict stories about Jesus… as a child! The stories are funny, absurd, utterly surprising and gloriously childish. In them, Jesus is depicted as a young boy struggling to control his own divine power, as well as his temper, to delightfully comic effect.
Take, for example, the scene where a boy jumps onto the boy Jesus’ shoulder. Angered by this playful act, Jesus smites him… to death! The parents of the deceased boy (who is depicted upside down) complain to Joseph, who then convinces his reluctant son to apologise and bring the boy back to life.
A similar fate befalls a child who destroys the little mud pools Jesus makes with a stick on the banks of the Jordan. And so it goes on.
Other stories include Jesus getting slapped at school by his teacher Levi for being insolent, or parents hiding their children in an oven so that Jesus – who by now seems to have gained a bit of a reputation for accidentally killing his playmates – doesn’t find them. When Jesus asks what is in the oven, he is told ‘pigs’. Of course, the poor children then ‘miraculously’ turn into pigs, before Jesus is once again forced to return them to their natural form.
Another parent locks his son in a tower to keep him away from Jesus, but they too are unsuccessful in the face this divine child; wanting to play, Jesus simply pulls his desired playmate out through the keyhole.
Of course, not all of the stories are quite so bizarre (or naughty!). Some depict the young Jesus performing other youthful miracles and blessings, or healing the infirm to the amazement of his teachers. Others are more familiar, like Jesus undertaking his first public miracle – the transformation of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana.
These adorable stories told by the Tring Tiles are based on some of the apocryphal ‘Infancy Gospels’ (like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas) which were written in the early years of the Christian church to satisfy a huge demand for details about Jesus’ boyhood, but never included in the Bible.
It’s not just the stories that are surprising – the origins of the tiles themselves are too. Made in the 14th century, between 1310-30, they’re one of the few illustrations of these apocryphal infancy gospels ever found. What’s more, the original tiles were made using a technique known as sgraffito which, although well known in France, is again one of only a handful of known examples of the technique being used to decorate tiles in England.
Having originally been displayed at the parish church in Tring, they were removed during ‘improvement’ works made in the 1880s, only to end up for sale in the local Curiosity Shop.
Eventually, they were bought by the British Museum, where they’re now on display in Room 40 filling all those who notice them with a miraculously childish sense of delight!
Want to see them for yourself? Next time you visit the British Museum, head to the southwest corner of Room 40 (Medieval Europe), where you’ll see the tiles displayed on the wall. You can also see two more of them at the V&A.
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