While doing some library research on symbolism in classical paintings, I came across a photo of a 1926 painting by the Surrealist Max Ernst: The Blessed Virgin Chastising the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses.
The painting is not a classical depiction of Mary; some say it is sacrilegious. Compare it to this Botticelli I wrote about last year - a piece that also played on traditional ways of looking at Jesus and Mary in art.
Max Ernst was quite deliberate in the composition of this painting. Usually, we see the baby Jesus in Mary's lap. This is a traditional way to symbolize, or "prefigure" the Pieta. Pieta is the Italian word for pity, but in art, it is a direct reference to the often-painted moment when Mary cradles Christ's lifeless body after he was taken down from the cross. You have probably seen a photo of Michelangelo's famous sculpture, La Pieta, hundreds of times.
In this painting, Ernst prefigures Christ's flagellation, another common theme in Christian art. At the flagellation, Christ is tied to a column and whipped by servants of Pontius Pilate. Ernst painted himself, along with his two friends, the founder of the Surrealist movement Andre Breton and the poet, Paul Eluard. The three men peer through a window, secretly witnessing Mary spanking Jesus, whose halo has fallen to the ground. The familiar depiction of the baby Jesus at peace in Mary's lap isn't to be found here.
Do the three men represent the disciples who discovered the empty tomb?
Or the servants of Pontius Pilate that whipped Christ at the stake? I
don't know, unfortunately. As I continue my research I'll be looking for other paintings with the "three men" to see if I can decode the artists' intentions.