Saturday, December 17, 2016

Joseph, Do Not Be Afraid!

Saint Joseph's Dream
from a Gospel Lectionary
Austrian (Salzburg), 1070-1090
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M780, fol. 1v
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph,
but before they lived together,
she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame,
decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold,
the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,
which means “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home. 

Matthew 1:18-24
Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A                                                             

Master of the Getty Epistles, Annunciation to Joseph
French (Tours), 1523-1540
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M452, fol. 38v

The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (and for the Vigil Mass for Christmas) in the cycle of readings for Year A, the year of St. Matthew, is one of the most unusual passages in the New Testament.  In it we encounter Saint Joseph, not as a background figure, but as the major figure and the main actor.1  He experiences all the doubt (and shock and probably anger) of a man who finds that his fiancée has apparently been unfaithful and has become pregnant by someone else.  It’s easy enough to imagine his feelings.  But they are also tempered by the fact that he was unwilling to expose her (and himself) to the inevitable censure of public disclosure.  Today we would say that he was conflicted and in turmoil.   

His doubts and fears are relieved when an angel appears to him in a dream to tell him that it is all right, it is not what he feared, but instead, something wonderful.  The idea of a revelation of reality through a dream harkens back to the other Joseph, in the Old Testament.  And like the earlier Joseph, Saint Joseph puts his trust in the message he receives in the dream and acts upon it.  He goes through with the marriage to Mary and becomes the foster father of Jesus, providing Him with support, protection and affection during His childhood to the end of his life.

Master of Death, The Annunciation to Saint Joseph
from Histoire de la Bible et de l'Assomption de Notre-Dame
French (Paris), 1390-1400
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M526, fol. 28v
There are many images of Saint Joseph in western art.  We have already looked at a few of them here and here.  However, images of this particular moment in the Gospels have not been represented as often as some of the others.  The biggest problem is how to distinguish this dream of Saint Joseph from the slightly later incident in which an angel warns him in another dream to “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt” (Matthew 2:13).   
Annunciation to Joseph
from the Gospels of Matilda, Countess of Tuscany
Italian (Lombardy), 1075-1099
New York,Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M492, fol. 20r

There also seems to have been little art historical investigation of this particular iconographic subject. The examples that I have managed to identify begin in the 11th Century and right away one of the formulas by which the dream of reassurance can be identified begins to be used.  To make clear the sequence into which this particular dream fits a reference to the Annunciation must be introduced. 

The assumption appears to be that it is Gabriel who makes both apparitions, the first to the waking Mary, the second to the sleeping Joseph.  Very often the “official” title of the painting is “The Annunciation to Joseph”.  This not only links him to the Annunciation (to Mary), but also puts him into the line of other annunciations by angels to the fathers of remarkable men, such as the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah (Luke 1:5-25) and to Manoah, the father of Samson (Judges 13:2-25).2  Both of these earlier annunciations are scheduled as the readings of the Mass for the Advent weekday Mass of December 19th. 

Sometimes this referral appears as a visible allusion by showing the image of the Virgin Annunciate.  At other times there is a referral to the dove symbol of the Holy Spirit, at still others simply a referral to heaven with angels singing praise. 

Annunciation to Saint Joseph
from Trond Gospel Lectionary
Belgian (Liege), 1160-1185
New York, Pierpoint Morgan Library
MS M883, fol. 2v

Scenes from the Life of the Virgin and St. Joseph
 from a Book of Hours
German (Franconia), 1204-1219
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M739, fol. 19v

Philippe de Champaigne, Dream of St. Joseph
French, 1642-1643
London, National Gallery

Carlo Maratti, Annunciation to St.  Joseph
Italian, 1652
Rome, Church of San Isidoro, Chapel of St. Joseph_

Francisco de Herrera el Mozo, Dream of St. Joseph
Spanish, c.1662
Madrid, Museo del Prado

Johann Hiebel, Annunciation to St. Joseph
German, 1727-1731
Litomerice (CZ), Jesuit Church of the Annunciation

Betrothal of the Virgin and the Annunciation to Joseph
from a Window
German, 1877-1878
Gelnhausen, Marienkirche
There is also at least one very unusual interpretation of this episode from the Gospels.  It can be titled “The Repentance of Saint Joseph” or "Joseph Asking Forgiveness from Mary".

It may make its first appearance as one of a series of illustrations in the book Pelerinage de Jesus-Christ from the second quarter of the fifteenth century in the Bibliotheque nationale de France.  The images follow the story from the Annunciation to Mary to Joseph's doubts, to his dream and to his repentance (with several additional scenes in between).  In the last image we see Joseph kneeling before Mary, acknowledging the presence of her Divine Child and his own acceptance of the situation.

Annunciation the Mary
from Pelerinage de Jesus-Christ by Guillaume de Digulleville
French (Rennes), 1425-1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 376, fol. 167v

Joseph Doubting Mary
from Pelerinage de Jesus-Christ by Guillaume de Digulleville
French (Rennes), 1425-1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 376, fol. 170

Annunciation to Joseph
from Pelerinage de Jesus-Christ by Guillaume de Digulleville
French (Rennes), 1425-1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 376, fol. 171

Joseph Asking Forgiveness from Mary
from Pelerinage de Jesus-Christ by Guillaume de Digulleville
French (Rennes), 1425-1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 376, fol. 171v

Alessandro Tiarini, Repentance of St. Joseph
Italian, after 1620
Paris, Musée du Louvre

In a much later version of the same scene we also see Joseph kneeling at the feet of the visibly pregnant Mary, who stands, surrounded by angels, as she points to heaven, the ultimate true home of her baby.

© M. Duffy, 2016


  1. See "St. Joseph, Spouse As Mousetrap"
  2. See Raymond Brown, SS.  The Birth of the Messiah:  A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, Garden City, NY, Doubleday and Company, 1977 and a commentary on Brown’s book, Edgar W. Conrad, “The Annunciation of Birth and the Birth of the Messiah”, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 4 (October, 1985), pp. 656-663.  

No comments: