TO BE OR NOT TO BE: ‘The Anxiety of St Joseph’ by James Tissot (1886 -1894), Brooklyn Museum

‘Joseph teaches us that faith in God includes believing that He can work even through our fears, our frailties and our weaknesses…amid the tempests of life, we must never be afraid to let the Lord steer our course. At times we want to be in control, yet God always sees the bigger picture. ’ – Pope Francis

The Artist: Born in France, James Tissot enjoyed great success as a high-society painter in Paris and London in the late nineteenth century. He was one of the most sought-after affluent portrait painters. In 1885 while working on a series of paintings, Tissot visited the Church of St Suplice. Here he experienced a profound religious vision of Christ. Abandoning his former frivolous subjects, Tissot embarked upon an ambitious mission to illustrate the Hebrew Bible.

The Tissot Bible: An artist between two worlds, Tissot met the Lord in Paris and followed Him to the Holy Land. He strove to present a Jewish Jesus within a historically accurate landscape, architectural exactitude, and localized costumes and customs. The result was the magnanimous ‘Life of Christ’ popularly known as ‘the Tissot Bible. Did you know that these paintings inspired the modern film set for the epic Ben-Hur?

The Carpenter’s Shop: Let’s now delve into the setting for today’s painting – the Carpentry Shop. The Greek word for the term ‘carpenter’ is ‘tektön’. It signifies a craftsman who builds with wood, stone, and even metal. The shop we are looking at is nestled in the tiny village of Nazareth. True to first-century Palestine, it adjoins a little cave and is constructed with mud bricks, lime plaster, and wood. Pieces of timber rest on the lateral walls. The windows look out onto the bustling streets of Nazareth, where the townsfolk go about their daily affairs.

Let’s glance back into the workshop. A sturdy wooden workbench stands at the centre surrounded by curled wood shavings. At its foot lies a woven basket filled with carpentry tools. However, you may notice that one such apparatus seems to be missing. We hear of it but can hardly see it.

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