NOT YOUR AVERAGE JOE: ‘Childhood of Christ’ by Gerrit van Honthorst (c 1620)
Gerrit van Honthorst is one of the leading masters of the 17th century Dutch painting. He was born in Utrecht in 1592 to a painter of tapestry cartoons. Essentially trained in the studio of Abraham Bloemaert, in 1610-12 he set for Rome and embraced the Baroque boom. Greatly influenced by the art of Caravaggio, he subscribed to the artist’s radical vision and adopted his revolutionary idiom. His great devotion to darkness and light earned him the title ‘Gherardo delle Notti’ or ‘Gerard of the nights’.
The play of light and darkness is very prominent in all of Honthorst’s paintings. Their function is not purely artistic as it is analytical in character. It penetrates into one’s intellectual, cultural, philosophical and spiritual being and arouses much speculation and contemplation. Unlike the gold flooded backgrounds of Medieval art, Honthrost’s baroque paintings stressed on ‘Divine Darkness’ as a mysterious medium of enlightening and strengthening faith. Darkness, according to his art, is fundamental for the attainment of spiritual perfection.
The absolute beauty of the play of light and shadow is gracefully expressed through today’s painting titled ‘The Childhood of Christ.’ To our extreme right stand two child-like angels with flowing drapery and fluffy wings. Their dreamy demeanour allures us to a higher realm while their little fingers direct us to the scene set before them.
Engulfed by shadows, to our left, stands the elderly Joseph. His wavy silver-white hair and lined forehead maps the journey of his life. And yet his gleaming eyes and sturdy hands waver not from work. With rolled up sleeves, Joseph dwells deep into midnight memories as he carves new ones with his robust tools.
He is accompanied by Christ Child who holds up a candle illuminating not only the work – room but also the heart and mind of his foster father. His tucked and pleated red robe defines His adoration and child-like love for Joseph and His Father in heaven. Notice the placement of hands. The raised hammer and the sharp nail below the toddler’s wrist are reminiscent of His ultimate suffering and crucifixion, a death that would dispel all darkness and hail in the Light of the World. Christ’s blood red robe seconds this Divine plan of salvation.
The scene emanates a wonderful calmness that enlivens our souls. The hushed atmosphere invites us to dwell upon the simplicity and the subtlety of the theme. At first glance one may consider the carpenter an average Joe who abided by the law and led an honourable life. He worked no miracles and preached no parables. And yet his beauty lies in the honest modesty and the intimacy that he shared with the Almighty.
Before Joseph stood a child whose conception was beyond His comprehension and yet He trusted and loved what he did not fully understand. His silence stands for His most profound witness as he stubbornly chooses to live his life according to God’s Divine plan and immerse himself into the mission of Divine love.
Notice the play of gestures in the painting. As Christ Child serenely looks up to his foster father, His glory is reflected onto the luminous candle. Joseph gazes intently at the flame, absorbing its warmth which in turn inspires his art. He focuses not so much on the work of his own hands as much as He contemplates and is absorbed by the light in God’s hands. As a true exemplar of faith, St. Joseph, the Carpenter lets Christ, the Divine Carpenter shape His life. On his feast-day, St. Joseph invites us to do the same!
Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557