Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Crib of the Infant Jesus
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This is a type of crib, known as a jésueau, which was used in women’s monasteries and beguinages to hold dolls that represented the Christ child. A jésueau might have been given to a nun or beguine upon her entry into the religious life, and on her death, ownership could have passed to the nunnery or beguinage itself. This particular jésueau, from the Grand Beguinage in Louven, Belgium, is one of only a few remaining examples, and is in very excellent condition.

    It is smaller than a regular crib, and the structure of the bed frame and posts mimics the architecture of a church with windows and towers. At the top of each post stands an angel whose job it is to ward off evil. Between the posts there are strings of bells which, like the angels, are put in place to frustrate evil spirits and demons who might try to harm the Christ child. Inside the crib are an embroidered pillow and a silk coverlet. The pillow is adorned with an image of the lamb of God, while the coverlet depicts the tree of Jesse, a genealogical representation of Christ’s ancestors beginning with the father of King David. On either end of the bed, the headboards depict the adoration of the Magi and angels.

    This jésueau is from a beguinage, as opposed to a monastery, and would have been used to swing a replica of the Christ child during prayer meetings. Beguinages, beginning around 1200 in the Low Countries, offered an alternative form of religious experience for women. Approximately half of the women at the Grand Beguinage in Louven – which was one of the largest Beguine communities of the time – were considered poor, while the other half came from economically stable or wealthy backgrounds. Beguinages, unlike monasteries, allowed women to be pious without committing to a life in enclosure. Nuns were considered brides of Christ and were consecrated for life, while Beguines could get married and leave the community when they wanted. Although some scholars suggest that jésueaux rituals could have arisen in place of taking care of a real child for nuns, it is less likely that it would have served this same purpose in beguinages where women were often in daily contact with townspeople as teachers, nurses, and textile workers.

    Instead, it is likely that the jésueau rituals in beguinages were ways for women to practice an active religion as opposed to a contemplative one consisting of prayers and meditative thinking. Many religious women claimed to have visions of Mary handing them the Christ child to hold and care for. The swinging of the crib and the care of the Christ child doll are both very practical manifestations of this vision. However, this presents an interesting contradiction. So called “good” religious women were nuns who were contemplative as opposed to active. However, “good” lay women fulfilled motherly duties and cared for others. This means that the Beguines who performed jésueau rituals were trying to be two types of “good” woman simultaneously.

    Additionally, though the bells on the jésueau were placed there to ward off evil, they would also have served to evoke the eucharistic rituals. When women would reach into the crib to lift up the Christ child, they would be forced to accidently ring the bells, much like the ringing of bells that took place during the Eucharist. The Eucharist was a ritual that could only be performed by a male priest as alter Christus, but it was often the source of important religious visions for women. By ringing the bells during their care of the Christ child, some scholars think that Beguines and nuns were evoking the power associated with the eucharistic rituals. Scholars often point out the fact that male saints, who are held in high religious standing, are frequently rule breakers. Female saints, on the other hand, are women who internalized the role of “good” women – silent and motherly – yet were able to transcend that role to become wise and insightful religious practitioners. Religious women derived their power from religious visions, and the ability to care for others. The jésueaux and associated rituals can be seen as manifestations of both of those forms of power.

  • Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art with the image identified as part of the Open Access for Scholarly Content program.
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Beguines Cradles Dolls Jesus Christ- Infancy Love- Religious Aspects Spirituality
  • Geographic Area: Low Countries
  • Century: 15
  • Date:
  • Related Work: View of the Beguinage crib from above;
    Side view of the Beguinage crib;
    Crib of the Infant Jesus, Cologne, 1340-1350 (Museum Schnütgen).
  • Current Location: New York City, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1974.121a–d
  • Original Location: Louvain, Belgium, Grand Béguinage
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Furniture; Devotional Objects;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Wood; Paint; Lead; Silver-gilt; Painted parchment; Silk embroidery with seed pearls; Gold thread; Translucent enamels
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 35.4 /28.9/18.4
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Bynum, Caroline Walker. "Holy Beds: Gender and Encounter in Devotional Objects from Fifteenth-Century Europe." In Dissimilar Similitudes: Devotional Objects in Late Medieval Europe. Zone Books, 2020. Pages 58-96;
    Bynum, Caroline Walker.  Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Reilgion.  Zone Books, 1991;
    Gilchrist, Roberta.  “Unsexing the Body: The Interior Sexuality of Medieval Reigious Women.” In Archaeologies of Sexuality.  Eds. Robert A. Schmidt and Barbara L. Voss.  Routledge, 2000. Pages 89-101;
    LeZotte, Annette. “Cradling Power: Female Devotions and Early Netherlandish Jésueaux.” In Push Me, Pull You: Physical and Spatial Interaction in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art. Ed. Sarah Blick and Laura D. Gelfand.  Volume 2.  Brill, 2011. Pages 59-84;
    Petroff, Elizabeth.  “Medieval Women Visionaries: Seven Stages to Power.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies (1978), 3, 1:  34-45;
    Rublack, Ulinka. "Female Spirituality and the Infant Jesus in Late Medieval Dominican Convents." Gender and History 6, 1 (1994): 37-57.