Wednesday, December 7, 2011


(St. Joseph and the Christ Child, Guido Reni, 1638, Houston Museum of Art)

It is true that some historical figures go in and out of favor over time.

Such was the case of the Biblical Joseph -  foster father of the Redeemer of the world.

During the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance period,  Joseph was mostly a forgotten man.

When we examine the doctrinal truths surrounding Joseph's story, this is not difficult to understand.

After all, it was the Virgin Mary who was appointed by God to conceive and bear this holy Child.

It would be primarily Mary who would succor and nurture the infant Jesus and then guide His growth and development over the course of His childhood.

By the late 16th century, pictorial images of Joseph with the Christ Child became increasingly popular.

As did Roman Catholic accounts of Joseph's life written by Teresa of Avila and later, Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.

Largely as a result of these written and visual images,  Joseph's role as foster father of Christ was given added prominence.

We have acclaimed Italian painter, Guido Reni, to thank - among others - for the visual rise of Joseph's standing in the Christian world.

In his day, the great Guido was called "divine."

This was an epithet shared only with Renaissance mega-masters Michelangelo and Raphael.

In one way, Guido's life closely paralleled Joseph's.

For a time, Guido became a forgotten figure thanks to influential English art critic, John Ruskin.

In 1847, Ruskin declared that Guido Reni and his contemporary colleagues  possessed "no single virtue, no colour, no drawing, no character, no history, no thought."


I have a thought.

And it's this:

The esteemed John Ruskin must have been using marbles for eyeballs!

What was he thinking if and when he viewed Guido's beautiful masterpiece, "Saint Joseph and the Christ Child"?

Let's take a closer look.

First of all,  I love Guido's tender treatment of the gaze between Joseph and the infant Christ.

To me, the emotional connection between these familial figures is more than apparent.

It speaks of the highest grace and beauty.

It speaks of warmth and devotion.

Although Ruskin stated that Reni's school of painters used "no colour" I see a canvas filled with rich, earthy hues.

Deep chocolate shades of brown and taupe anchor the background.

These hues are echoed in Joseph's robe which is highlighted with just the right touch of gray.

The baby's creamy skin and carrot hued curls add a soft, peachy glow to this masterpiece.

Joseph's white beard and the white swaddling blanket bring added light and life to the hallowed babe's countenance.

Though the father and son are the stars of this painting, it is Joseph's magnificent cloak that deserves our secondary attention.

That gorgeous sienna hued fabric - the brightest color in the painting - softly encircles Joseph and the infant Jesus.

The cloak serves to bond them together in a symbolic sense.

Scriptural accounts tell us that Joseph taught the child Jesus carpentry skills.

The Redeemer worked in that trade before His ministry began in earnest at the age of 30.

Did Joseph teach Jesus everyday life skills as well?

We can surely imagine that he did.

Would not this Child's Heavenly Father want His only begotten Son brought up in an earthly home where spiritual truths were modeled by an attentive, loving father figure?

Finally, we do not want to forget that gently offered apple.

Christ holds it up for Joseph's perusal.

Frequently present in Christian paintings, the apple represents the act of the Fall in the Garden of Eden.

Further, it symbolizes the need for a loving Savior who will unselfishly offer Himself as Redeemer for humankind.


Guido Reni felt inspired to lighten his palette around the year 1630.

Simply put, the artist decided to use a softer touch.

He eliminated or lightened the dark shadows that frequently appeared in his older works.

He cleaned up his compositions by simplifying their outlines.

His brushwork became loose and free flowing.

His lovely pale colors mingled more softly.

As a result of these innovations, Guido's art began to take on a more luminous quality.

"Saint Joseph and the Christ Child" was painted sometime between the years 1638 and 1640.

This masterpiece became the beneficiary of Guido's new thinking and new technique.

That is oh-so-very obvious, isn't it?

It wasn't until the 1950's and 1960's that Guido's reputation as a brilliant painter was rightfully restored.

He is currently considered one of the greatest artists of the Italian Baroque era.

Special appreciation is given to Guido for the ethereal beauty of his soft colors.

But it is the grace and nobility of Guido's human figures that delight the hearts of his viewers today.

His painterly vision ennobles humanity.

It speaks of the divine within us.

The subject of Joseph's affection for the infant Christ held a special place in Guido's heart.

At least two other versions of this subject were painted.

Guido understood that a father's love is necessary.

His Joseph stands as a sentinel bearing witness to the holiness of a father's love.

The babe's calm repose and steady gaze reinforce that sacred witness.  

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