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.
Jewish Joseph: The stillness of the room is interrupted by the jittery chipping of the chisel. The shaping tool is held by a Jewish carpenter, hunched over his bench, discerning the will of his Master. Unable to work, Joseph seeks his beloved among the women carrying jars of water in the street. His rough hands support his bearded chin while his sinewy arms are garbed in a slouchy cotton tunic finished at his ankles. His head is covered with the Sudra, a traditional ancient Jewish headdress. Leather sandals cover the soles of his feet.
To Be or Not To Be: Joseph’s soul was in great turmoil. Betrothed, not married, he discovers with great pain that Mary, the delight of his heart, was pregnant. Now, this is a crucial moment in history for remember within this biblical recounting, St Joseph is called a just man. Let’s delve deeper into this periscope.
Three Theories: The anxiety of St Joseph has been thoroughly studied through the ages. Saints and scholars propose three such exegeses. The Suspicion Theory claims that Joseph suspected Mary of adultery and therefore decided to obtain a divorce. The Stupefaction Theory is based on Joseph’s utter confusion also known as Joseph’s Doubt. The third theory is the most widely accepted and is known as the Reverence Theory. This belief is rooted in the fact that Joseph did not doubt Mary’s purity, love, and holiness. Rather his suffering came from knowing that he was unworthy to be the husband of the Mother of God and the father of Christ Incarnate. Joseph suffered for he loved Mary, but he loved God more. He knew Mary belonged to God and hence he decided to distance himself from a union with such exalted holiness. Doesn’t this recall those profound Gospel words of which we pray till date, ‘Lord I am not worthy that you should come under my roof.’
Joseph, Friend of the Anxious: We rarely think of St Joseph as an anxious man and yet anxiety seemed to be the watchword of his life. At every stage of the journey, he encountered great apprehension. But Joseph was not passively resigned. His immediate reaction was not rebellion or surrendering in disappointment to the situation. Rather Joseph discerned the will of God, surrendered to God’s goodness, and took one step at a time in the right direction. In return, he received both courage and clarity from God. As a friend in our anxiety, St Joseph inspires us to do the same.
Joynel Fernandes – Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum