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, with the feast of the Holy Family being established only a little more than 100 years ago, in 1893.

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.

Window Known as "Notre-Dame de la Belle Verriere"
French, c. 1150
Chartres, Cathedral of Notre-Dame

Enthroned Virgin and Child
French (Auvergne), c. 1150-1200
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection

Our Lady of Paris
French, Early 14th Century
Paris, Cathedral of Notre-Dame

Rogier van der Weyden, Enthroned Madonna and Child
Flemish, c.1430
Madrid, Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection

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.

Guido da Siena, Nativity
Italian, c. 1275-1280
Paris, Musée du Louvre

The Limbourg Brothers (Herman, Jean and Pol), Adoration of the Shepherds
From the Tres Belles Heures de Jean de France, Duc de Berry
French (Paris), c. 1405-1409
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection
MS 54.1.1a b, Fol. 48v 

Pietro Perugino, Nativity
Italian, c. 1500-1505
Chicago, Art Institute

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 or is oriented in a different direction.

Niclaus Weckmann, Holy Family
German, c. 1500
New  York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hans Baldung Gruen, Rest on the Flight into Egypt
German, c, 1512
Vienna, Akademie der bildenden Künste

Joos van Cleve, Holy Family
Flemish, c. 1515
Vienna, Akademie der bildenden Künste

Agnolo Bronzino, Holy Family with St. John the Baptist
Italian, c. 1540
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi 

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, c. 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

This happier view of the Holy Family carried over into the Spanish colonies in the New World as well.  Spanish colonial painters produced some of the most charming images of the Holy Family and of Joseph particularly.

Jose de Alciber, The Ministry of Saint Joseph
Mexican, c. 1771
Mexico City, Museo Nacional de Arte

José de Alcíbar, The Blessing of the Table
Mexican, c. 1780-1800
Mexico City, Museo Nacional de Arte

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,2 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), c. 1470
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS.  MMW 10 A 15, fol. 24v

Jacob Jordaens, Return to Nazareth from Egypt
Flemish, c. 1616
Berlin, Staatliche Museen

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, c. 1675-1682
London, National Gallery

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.

Carlo Dolci, The Two Trinities
Italian, c. 1630
Private Collection

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, c. 1717-1718
St. Petersburg, State 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, c. 1735-1736
Venice, Gallerie dell'Accademia

Francisco de Goya, Holy Family with the Child Saint John the Baptist
Spanish, c. 1788-1789
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Martin Johann Schmidt, Holy Kindred
Austrian, 1786
Vienna, Belvedere Museum

These last two versions of the subject also include the very young Saint John the Baptist.  

In the nineteenth century it became possible to think of what family life at Nazareth might actually have looked like.   So, painters imagined Joseph working at his carpentry trade or assisting in the education of the child Jesus.

Johann Evangelist Scheffer von Leonhartshoff, Holy Family
German, c. 1815
Berlin, Nationalgalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin

John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter's Shop)
English, c. 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 Esteban Murillo, Holy Family With A Little Bird
Spanish, 1650
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

1.  Margaret Duffy, "St. Joseph, Spouse As Mousetrap", Ad Imaginem Dei blog, Tuesday, May 1, 2012,

2.  See several essays on the iconographic traditions for the subjects of the "Flight into Egypt" and the "Rest on the Flight into Egypt".  They may be found at the following links:

The Flight into Egypt -- The Holy Refugees
The Flight Into Egypt -- The Variations

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Part I of 3