THE SILENT KNIGHT: The Dream of Saint Joseph by Philippe de Champaigne (1642 -43)
The story of Salvation is composed of characters, each sublime and distinct in their words spoken and their significant roles of action. One such fascinating figure is undoubtedly Joseph of Nazareth – a man of great silence who has intrigued and bewildered some of history’s greatest minds and sensitive souls. We know not of a single syllable he ever spoke and yet his actions, eloquent and enigmatic, speak volumes for a library to contain. History often rehearsed the words ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’(John 1:46), leave aside its crude carpenters! And yet, today we celebrate the role of a regular ordinary wood-worker, called by God, to partake in His most extraordinary mission of salvation as testified by the Wood of the Cross.
Philippe de Champaigne, a Flemish-born, prolific French Baroque painter, through his masterpiece, draws us into one of the most impeding narratives of today’s Gospel. St Joseph discovers, to his dismay, that the woman he loved and to whom he was betrothed to marry was pregnant. Encountering a crisis beyond comprehension, the just man was moved to despair. The Mosaic Law permitted him to hand Mary over to be stoned to death but his faithful and delicate feelings decided otherwise. Resolving to save life, Joseph with a broken heart, hoped to divorce Mary in silence.
Gone is the Italian architecture and the Dutch landscape. The nature of the canvas takes us far from the outwardly or the human point of view, dwelling rather deep on the intimate, more inner nature of man. The canvas consist of a simple room with three pivotal figures – the Blessed Virgin, her husband and the angelic intervention.
As the sun goes down over the horizon, a night of obscurity, anguish and introspection invades Joseph. In order to escape reality, he seeks refuge among his familiar friends scattered around the floor. He earnestly hoped that the wooden mallet, chisel and axe would help him construct a substantial solution against the storm battling his soul. As the silence grew louder it lulled Joseph into a sagely slumber.
Champaigne creatively captures his eventual comfort through the deeply padded and tasselled cushion on which St. Joseph rests his head. The ornate chair stands in contrast to Joseph’s simplicity. He is cloaked in a yellow garment with large folds while his sandals lay untied before him marking his openness and resignation to higher will.
As the night grows darker, a much brighter being invades the terrestrial sphere. Among billows of cascading green drapery descends a fluttering angel from the Almighty. Face aglow, eyes focused, the mediator bears and breathes God’s Word. Its divine radiance engulfs the air and brings to focus the woman of prayer. With one hand pointing towards heaven and the other to Mary, the angel explains to Joseph the anomalous pregnancy.
Interesting indeed is the presence of the Blessed Virgin. Notice her calm demeanour. Kneeling before the open Bible and the weaving Veil of the Temple, the Immaculate Virgin crosses her hands in prayer trusting God to braid together the seemingly impossible situation. At the heart of her worship is Surrender. As she gazes at her affiance who is asleep and spiritually abandoned to God, Mary witnesses the triumph of the Almighty over human fraility for that silent night, many nights before the birth of Jesus was born a Silent Knight who joined Mary in loving what he could not understand and partaking in the great YES; a yes that made possible the unimaginable – a Saviour, raised by a Carpenter, who won us Salvation through the holy Wood of the Cross.
Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
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For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557