My Art Institute of Chicago Squishy Jesus tour

In the late 90’s I worked at the Art Institute of Chicago for a few months. I was hired to work a variety of visitor services roles but was never actually trained for them: the AIC just dropped me off in the coat check and the other staff showed me what to do. Everything we checked cost a dollar, and once the customers encountered the mean old lady who guarded the entrance and screamed at them with a German accent “MUST CHECK BAG! MUST CHECK UMBRELLA!” they were primed to be extra cranky when we told them it would be a dollar for their bag, a dollar for their coat, a dollar for their umbrella…If you’ve ever visited the AIC on a rainy Saturday during an impressionist exhibit, you might have an idea of the mobs of tourists I’m talking about.

Despite this, the job was kind of fun. There was a security guard assigned to keep our cash drawers full of change and he was universally known as Dave the Change Guy. Now, given that making change was Dave the Change Guy’s only job, you’d think he’d be fairly competent, but no—Dave constantly messed up our change orders. You’d hand him $50 and say “I need $50 in fives” and he’d come back with 50 five dollar bills. A lot of the staff were artists and one day we all drew a picture of Dave the Change Guy handing us random bunches of bills.

My favorite time of day at AIC was in the morning. Before the museum opened, we were told to walk the galleries, picking up discarded brochures and moving signs back into place. After a few days I realized no one did this: mostly they’d stay in the break room, gossiping, snacking, and flipping through magazines. These mornings were a magical time in my life. I’d pick a new artwork every morning, and just be there with it. Can you imagine it, a half hour absolutely alone with a Velasquez? A Titian? A Durer etching? The AIC is full of treasures, and for a few months every morning, they were all mine.

I looked at all kinds of art during those mornings at AIC but most often I was drawn to the European medieval rooms. You know me as someone who loves religious art, and that’s nothing new. I loved those medieval works best of all, and at the same time I found them hilarious. So funny, in fact, that I started giving my own covert tours, called Squishy Jesus.

Detail from Panel from the High Altar of the Charterhouse of Saint-Honoré, Thuison-les-Abbeville: Virgin and Child, 1490-1500, Oil on panel

My Squishy Jesus tours were centered on the baby Jesus, in all his medieval weirdness (and often squishiness: like his neck in the painting above.)

Virgin and Child, detail, about 1270, tempera on panel

I made my own Squishy Jesus Taxonomy for these tours including; Male Pattern Baldness,

Early Childhood Obesity,

Detail of Workshop Virgina and Child, workshop of Rogier van der Weyden, 1460, oil on panel

and Convenient Tit (where Mary’s breast emerges conveniently from her collarbone to suckle the infant Christ).

Detail of Retable and Frontal of the Life of Christ and the Virgin Made for Pedro López de Ayala, 1396, tempera and gold on panel

I liked to narrate the voices of the ox and ass in nativity scenes:

Ox: look how looooonnnng baby Jesus is!
Ass: and he’s got biceps!

Detail of a Crucifix, Master of the Bigallo Crucifix, 1230-40

The adult Christ was not exempt from my tour. Here he is representing Subliminal Penis Belly.

Detail of Panel from the High Altar of the Charterhouse of Saint-Honoré, Thuison-les-Abbeville: Saint John the Baptist ,1490’s

I did not neglect the saints, either.

Behold the Lamb of God and the articulated bangs of St John the Baptist. (Instead of his regular Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm outfit, St John should be wearing an “I’m with stupid” t-shirt, don’t you think?)

Saint Agatha, Raphael Vergos, about 1500, oil and gold on panel

Hi, my name is Agatha and I’ll be your server today. Can I start you guys out with my boobs?

The Head of Saint John the Baptist Brought before Herod ,Giovanni di Paolo, 1455, tempera on panel

Oh come on, we had severed head for dinner last night too—can’t we ever just order a pizza?

I didn’t get fired for giving rogue tours—I quit because my other job made me full time. Before I worked at the Art Institute, my family would say to me “You’re funny but nobody knows it.” It was the Squishy Jesus that allowed me to let my inner dialogue go public. And now that it has escaped, there’s no stuffing it back inside.

Just like a skydiving obese putto, I’m free.

The Adoration of the Christ Child, detail, Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen and Workshop, 1515, oil on panel

16 comments

  1. That last one I’ve got to see

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My camera doesn’t have much of a zoom, but I tried to get a detail of one of the catapulting putti. Here it is on the AIC website: https://www.artic.edu/artworks/100345/the-adoration-of-the-christ-child

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Classic WoB commentary, so droll but a very necessary counterpoint to those oh-sooo-worthy academic commentaries (like wot I might be inclined to give if I was a scholar in any form).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You seem to be quite erudite to me, and a diligent reader. I got through four years of college and that was enough for me—Squishy Jesus is my advanced degree I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’d sign up for your Squishy Jesus tour……beats my last visit to the Tate hands down…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Helen. For you, I’d track down the Slaughter of the Innocents platter…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Much appreciated!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. You never disappoint! I’m glad your family appreciated your humor. Unlike you, I always breezed through these rooms in museums – perhaps a knee-jerk recovering Catholic reaction – but now I feel inspired to make these room my destination!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Tricia. I always go to those rooms first!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I will never look at medieval religious art the same way… (which is a good thing!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Once you see the subliminal penis belly, you’ll never unsee.

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  6. It’s like medieval artists had never seen a baby. As a poor teenager I remember leaving my backpack with a really friendly cta worker at the adams and Wabash station when I needed to finish a project. Lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lol! Saved a buck and headed off the mean German lady guard— well done!

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  7. My brain is trying to remember…I believe I might have gone to this museum-gallery in Chicago..in the early 1990’s. It was after a work-conference in Deerfield for international fire protection librarians. I took the commuter train (or was it bus) into Chicago. That was the only thing I rememb ered a nice gallery. I didn’t take any photos …since I didn’t have my camera. Is that museum not far from the lakefront? Who knows maybe you were somewhere else in that bldg. 🙂 That painting of St. John’s head on platter is just grisley.. I wasn’t aware of that biblical story. 😦

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    1. That sounds like an interesting conference. Yes, the AIC is pretty close to the lakefront and that’s where most people go. There’s another panel of that John the Baptist series where John gets his head cut off and it is even more gruesome, but also kinda funny because his neck is unnaturally long.

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