This ambitious, vividly coloured panel illustrates a Biblical episode recounted in the first three Gospels (Mark 10:13-16, part of which is inscribed on the picture; Matthew 19:13-15; Luke 18:15-17):
'And they brought unto Him little children, that He should touch them: and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, He was moved with indignation, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me; forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein. And He took them in his arms, and blessed them, laying His hands upon them.'
A consummate storyteller of both secular and religious scenes, Lucas Cranach the Elder shows in this painting the full extent of his narrative skills. Through a very full and animated composition, accommodating no less than twenty-eight figures set against a flat black background that brings them to the fore, he conveys the mothers' eagerness to have their children blessed by Christ, and his tenderness contrasting with the Apostles' reluctance.
The theme of Christ Blessing the Children was a novelty in the first half of the 16th century. Although literary sources testify to the existence of this iconography prior to Cranach, there are no earlier surviving examples of this subject in oil. Yet from 1538 on, at least fifteen versions of varying quality and scale emanated from his workshop, showing the great popularity enjoyed by the theme (for a full list, see Friedlander and Rosenberg, 1979, op. cit., no. 217 and 362). Such distinguished patrons as Cranach's famous protector Frederic the Magnanimous, Elector of Saxony - whose accounts show three payments made in 1539, 1543 and 1550 for panels bearing this imagery - were avid collectors of these depictions (C. Schurchart, Lucas Cranach des Älteren, Leben und Werken, Leipzig, 1851-71, I, pp. 122, 161, 208). Demand for this iconography has been associated with Luther's repeated use of this Biblical episode in his writings to defend the practice of infant Baptism, as a reaction to the doctrine of adult Baptism championed by the Anabaptists, a Protestant sect then gaining momentum in Germany (C.O. Kibish, 'Lucas Cranach's Christ Blessing the Children, A Problem of Lutheran Iconography', The Art Bulletin, XXXVII, 1955, pp. 196-203). Cranach, a close friend of Luther and a major contributor to the fashioning of Reformation imagery, would have attempted visually to translate the need to enter the Christian community at an early age.
The quality and condition of this panel place it amongst the most accomplished treatments of the subject including the works in Hamburg, Kunsthalle; Naumburg, St. Wenceslaus Church; or Frankfurt am Main, Städelsches Kunstinstitut. Furthermore, dated 1538, it belongs to the earliest versions of this theme, at a time when Cranach was still devising the pictorial formula that would become so successful. Going beyond the serious theological content, the artist instilled playfulness and spontaneity to this scene, in his distinctive stylized and elegant manner, while also seizing the opportunity to depict alluring examples of his trademark female beauties.