ST. JOSEPH: Where ART Thou?
A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. But could a thousand pictures and a million words ever account for the greatness of him whose language was silence, of whom we know not of a single syllable of a single word he ever spoke?
With our eyes closed, let’s consider picturing St Joseph – what do you see? – in all probability we would imagine a greyed old man with a white beard, garbed in green and earth, hoisting up a lily or Joseph bent and bowed, seated with reverence in the corner of a Nativity scene. Occasionally we also witness Joseph the Dreamer, napping and experiencing the Divine through his sleep.
It is interesting to note that the Quiet Saint lulled his way through the first two centuries of Christian art. His sabbatical served a purpose to the waking Church and the falling Roman Empire. In a pagan world where promiscuity was the norm, Joseph’s absence was meant to support the Church striving to emphasize upon Christ’s Divinity and His virginal birth.
So where then do we first gain sight of the Silent Knight? Unsurprisingly in Eastern art, specifically in the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai. A beautiful Nativity icon depicts Mary attending to the Christ Child, angels harping, kings adoring, shepherds playing their pipes, midwives washing, animals prowling but St Joseph is set apart. Seated at the lower end of the canvas, he contemplates the mystery of the Word made Flesh.
In the West, St Joseph made his artistic debut in the fifth century in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major. Curiously, Joseph is depicted five times on the triumphal arch, even more than the Blessed Virgin. A century later, Joseph reappears in Ravenna, in the Church of San Vitale.
Over the years, the Silent Saint found a new lease of life among the Northern artists. Joseph was now their Man Friday – stoking a fire, looking for midwives, drying diapers, cooking a porridge, welcoming shepherds, and looking after the immediate human needs of the newborn babe. From this, we can deduce that St Joseph was either the quiet or the busy guy in Christian art.
The devotion to St Joseph and the patronage to his art accelerated in the 11th century with St Bernard of Clairvaux preaching the importance of the ‘Husband of Mary’. He disbanded images of an aged Joseph and proposed a thoughtful hero of virtuous self-mastery. However, by the mid-fourteenth century, we rebound to the old St Joseph, the champion of the Church, dressed in blue and yellow robes – the motifs of St Peter.
In the sixteenth century, certain elements of the Renaissance and the Reformation posed a threat to family life and marriage. Young St Joseph was chosen as Mr. Fix and a myriad of the Holy Family images flooded the scene. With the dawn of the Spanish Missions, this devotion traveled into the New World and Asia. St Joseph was now the Man of the Missions and the Patron of Good Death. Thus at every stage in Church history, through his presence or absence, St Joseph served to shepherd the Church and reinforce faith through Catholic art and spirituality.
Through this series, let’s journey with Joseph through art. We will explore different masterpieces to enliven our understanding of the brilliant silence of the most glorious Saint, Father, and Protector of the Church. Stay tuned!
Joynel Fernandes – Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
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