Monday, December 31, 2012

Jesus, Mary and Joseph! – The Holy Family



Adoration of the Magi
Earliest known image of the childhood of Jesus
Early Christian painting, 3rd Century AD
Rome, Catacomb of Priscilla
Anyone who grew up in an Irish-American Catholic family in the 1950s or 1960s is probably familiar with the expression “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” which served as an expression of astonishment, amazement or even anger more often than as a pious invocation.

Similarly, one may be familiar with the pious custom of heading written documents with the initials JMJ, usually accompanied by a cross that was very common during the same time period. Both refer to the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. However, the entire concept of “the Holy Family” is a relatively recent one in history, with the feast of the Holy Family being established only a little more than 100 years ago, in 1893.

Madonna and Child
Stained Glass window
Chartres, ca. 1150
Indeed, during the entire first millennium, the concept was completely missing from the visual arts. All references to the early years of Jesus’ life focused on mother and Child. It was they who appeared in the catacombs and in the mosaics that decorated the early Christian churches. And it is the Madonna and Child in stained glass and sculpture that decorated the Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe.

As we have previously seen,1 St. Joseph, in spite of his important appearances in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, was absent or relegated to the far background of Nativity scenes, almost always shown as a very elderly man or little more than a servant. This position only began to change and to soften during the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Yet, even as the figure of Joseph began to become more prominent, younger and more involved he was still kept subtly separate from the traditional grouping of Madonna and Child. Often, he appears in the background or on the other side of some physical separation from Mary and Jesus.

Hans Baldung Gruen, Rest on the Flight into Egypt
German, ca, 1512
Vienna, Akademie der bildenden Kuenste
Joos van Cleve, Holy Family
Flemish, ca. 1515
Vienna, Akademie der bildenden Kuenste




















Agnolo Bronzino, Holy Family with St. John the Baptist
Italian, ca. 1540
Florence, Uffizi Gallery
It appears that it wasn’t until the seventeenth century that Joseph began to come into his own as a fully rounded figure represented as equal in position to Mary.

It is in the Low Countries and Spain (which were tied together politically for much of this period) that the familiar image of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph emerges.

Matthias Stom, Holy Family
Dutch, 1640s
Barcelona, Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya

Jusepe Ribera, Holy Family with St. Catherine
Spanish, 1648
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

















Noel Halle, The Holy Family
French, 1753
Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum
Among the most striking of Holy Family images is the unusual subject called the Return to Nazareth from Egypt. As opposed to the more familiar Flight Into Egypt, which depicts the baby Jesus being taken to Egypt to escape Herod, the iconography of this subject shows Jesus as a young boy (no longer a baby or toddler) walking while holding the hand of one or both parents.  The earliest example I've found of this theme dates to the late fifteenth century and the latest to the eighteenth century.

Rambures Master, Return to Nazareth from Egypt
from Biblia pauperum
Northern French or Femish (Hesdin or Amiens)
ca. 1470
The Hague, Museum Moormano Westentrianum
MS.  MMW 10 A 15, fol. 24v
Jacob Jordaens, Return to Nazareth from Egypt
Flemish, ca. 1616
Berlin, Staatliche Museen






















Frencesco Conti, Return to Nazareth from Egypt
Italian, 1734
Cleveland, Museum of Art

Other striking images are found in paintings called The Two Trinities.

One, by the Spaniard Bartolome Murillo shows the boy Jesus as a participant in both the earthly trinity and the heavenly one.

Bartolome Murillo, The Two Trinities
Spanish, 1675-1682
London, National Gallery




















Carlo Dolci, The Two Trinities
Italian, ca. 1630
Private Collection
Another, even more striking painting, by the Italian Carlo Dolci, shows the adult Jesus seated between Mary and Joseph. In both paintings it is Joseph who assumes the more active role, while Mary remains contemplative, “pondering all these things”. In the Dolci Joseph is actively and attentively listening to Jesus; while in the Murillo he gazes out of the picture at us with a gesture that presents Jesus to us.












Into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries both images of the Holy Family, that with the subsidiary Joseph and that with the more equal Joseph, continued to be produced.

Jean-Antoine Watteau, Holy Family
French, 1717-1718
St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum
Jacob de Wit, Two Trinities
Dutch, 1726
Amsterdam, Amstelkring Museum
(In spite of its title this picture clearly also
belongs in the tradition of the Return to Nazareth
from Egypt mentioned above.)























Giovanni Battista Tiepolo,
Holy Family Appearing to St. Gaetano
Italian, 1735-1736
Venice, Gallerie dell'Accademia
Anton Raphael Mengs, Holy Family
German, 1769
Budapest, National Museum




















Francisco de Goya, Holy Family
Spanish, 1788-1789
Madrid, Museo del Prado

Presentation, Stained Glass window
English, 19th Century
Oxfordshire, North Aston
St. Mary's Church


John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter's Shop)
English, 1849-1850
London, Tate Gallery














However, as time has advanced I think it is safe to say that the words “Holy Family” now principally bring to mind the late, more equal Joseph whose role is perhaps most charmingly shown in a painting of the Holy Family With A Little Bird by Murillo.
Bartolome Murillo, Holy Family With A Little Bird
Spanish, 1650
Madrid, Museo del Prado
________________________________
1.  Margaret Duffy, "St. Joseph, Spouse As Mousetrap", Ad Imaginem Dei blog, Tuesday, May 1, 2012,
http://imaginemdei.blogspot.com/2012/05/st-joseph-spouse-as-mousetrap.html





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