O HOLY COMMUNION: St Joseph and the Christ Child by Guido Reni (1638 – 1640), The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

O HOLY COMMUNION: St Joseph and the Christ Child by Guido Reni (1638 – 1640), The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

‘What a sublime vision to have the Son of God ever before his (St. Joseph’s) eyes! Ecstasy most rare! Rapture most marvelous’ – Blessed William Joseph Chaminade

The Artist: Guido Reni (1575 – 1642) is one of the most illustrious Italian painters of the Baroque period. Born in Bologna, Reni came from a family of musicians who encouraged his visual art skills. Eventually, Reni moved to Rome and became the primary leader of a strong Bolognese art contingent there. Like his contemporaries, Reni drew on Biblical and Classical subjects. His works are strategically sculptural, handsomely humanized, and deeply dramatic. The grace and veracity of Reni’s serene compositions won him the title ‘the divine Guido’.

Mastering the moment, the artist captures the divine in his beautiful painting titled ‘St Joseph and the Christ Child.’ He produced two other renditions on the same theme.

Description: As we gaze at the composition, St Joseph steps out of the shadows into a mysterious light. In his arms he beholds the glory of the Incarnation – God made flesh. Joseph holds this mystery with gentle care. He supports the length of the body of Christ Child with his bare hands. Notice those tender lines of age on his sagging skin. It reflects the frailness of the elderly and the delight and delicateness of a newborn. And yet Joseph looks neither back nor forward. He envisions eternity ‘face to face.’

Adoration: Doesn’t the composition capture the emotion of every doting father when a miracle of life is entrusted to his care? – There is a sense of awe, disbelief, followed by a flood of overwhelming love. The relaxed Christ Child radiates playful contentment. He is secure in the protective embrace of His earthly father. The painting is a window to the humanness of God.

St Joseph led a life of continual contemplation in its most sublime sense. Contemplation is best to summarize in the words of St John Marie Vianney – ‘I look at him and he looks at me.’ Doesn’t this phrase perfectly spell out the love we witness in today’s canvas?

The Roman Connection: Interestingly, the composition found its inspiration from an ancient classical statue of the satyr Silenus, cradling the infant Dionysos. However the Roman Connection does not end here – Notice the rendering of the elderly St Joseph, his fluffy beard, and the colors of his drapery. It recalls the iconography of the first Pope, St Peter. This affiliation was preferred by Rome as it asserted the Pope’s role as the Guardian of the Church. Just as St Joseph cradled Christ Child, so was the Church called to Paternal Papacy. The word ‘Pope’ in Italian means ‘Father’ and we still address the Pope as the ‘Holy Father’.

Apple of my eye: Like every infant with a new toy, Christ Child holds up an apple. You’ve guessed it right! The artistic object of playfulness is but a symbol of the bitter fall. Besides, the fruit here reminds us of the fruitfulness of God’s promise of redemption. Notice that the infant Christ gazes not at the fruit of deception, rather He looks up to Joseph as the partaker in His mission.

O Holy Communion: Notice the posture of the Saint. In reverence, he presents Christ Child to us. Is this not a glimpse of the Father’s heart? It echoes John 3:16 ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.’
Observe the cuteness and the chubbiness of the little babe. His liveliness emphasizes the very reality of the Word made Flesh. You can touch God – it ain’t symbolic or poetic. The well-nourished babe is here to nourish us. In this way, St Joseph silently leads us to the Real Presence of Christ.

In conclusion let’s ponder on the words of St Joseph Marello – ‘When we receive Holy Communion, let us consider that Jesus comes to us as a little baby, and then let us pray that St. Joseph helps us welcome Him, as when he held Him in his arms.’

Joynel Fernandes – Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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