THE CHRISTMAS CANVAS: ‘The Dream of Joseph’ by Georges de la Tour
It was indeed a tough day for Joseph. Post his labour at the carpenters table, he had discovered with deep sorrow that Mary his betrothed was pregnant. As the tongues in the town wagged furiously with the news, Joseph was deeply embarrassed as only he knew that he was not the father.
He was well aware of the gruesome punishment and the disgrace that would await Mary if she was prosecuted for adultery. His delicate feelings decided otherwise. Despite his painful discovery and his ignorance of the divine incarnation plan, he resolved not to defame his affianced but rather to divorce her privately without a messy public trial.
As the sun goes down the horizon, a night of obscurity, anguish and introspection invades Joseph. Post the bustle of the day; he desired the inner silence of the night. As thoughts stormed his mind, he lay down at rest in his favourite armchair seeking some refuge in the sacred scriptures.
Georges de la Tour, through today’s painting, takes this impeding scene to the next level. 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 room is devoid of cluttering details. It exemplifies the essentials i.e. two protagonists and the play of divine light.
No utterance rather deep silence permeates the room. The silence lulls Joseph into a sagely slumber. The flame of the consuming candle soon finds company in divine radiance. In comes an immaculate little mediator from God. Face aglow, eyes focused, the left hand of the angel moves in parallel with Joseph’s consciousness transcending his being into divine space.
The outstretched right arm of the angel protectively shields the flame. This prevents the effulgent gleam from traversing into our space. It was a personal, private encounter. But how profound was this divine encounter for Joseph through this dream joins Mary in saying ‘yes’ to God’s plan of action; yes to the salvation story! The light lit his heart that night!
Joseph’s peaceful face is beheld by the enlightening glance of the angel who transmits this terrestrial passenger into a celestial sphere. As Joseph supports his head with his right hand, his left hand daintily holds on to the corner of the book. It symbolizes Joseph holding on to God’s word revealed to him in the dream in faith; a faith that leads to action!
Certainly a fascinating work of art, Georges de la Tour employs tenebrism in order to bring alive a nocturnal scene. The word tenebrism is derived from an Italian term ‘tenebroso’ meaning dark, gloomy rather mysterious. It is a technique to create drama through a spotlight effect. He uses clair-obscur, light and darkness, so as to conceive a sense of depth in the canvas. The ‘Dream of Joseph’ was completed by La Tour in 1640. Currently it features at the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Nantes, France.
St. Joseph was chosen by God to partake in His marvellous plan. A man of silence and strength, through his sacred sleep he considered and confirmed to God’s providence, taking care of Mary, Christ Child and today of the Church. His obedience and faith draws us closer to Christmas and to Christ!
Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Goregaon, Mumbai
The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557
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