Tag: Mary

Saint Joseph, the Carpenter from Nazareth

Saint Joseph, the Carpenter from Nazareth

Today March 19th is the day dedicated to Saint Joseph. Who is he? Joseph is one of the three members of the Holy Family, together with the Virgin Mary and her child Jesus. He is a carpenter from Nazareth and a widower, who married the Virgin Marry at that time already pregnant with Jesus. The virgin birth of Jesus is the Christian doctrine that Jesus was conceived and born by his mother Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit and without sexual intercourse. Joseph is therefore Jesus’s foster-father. In most paintings with the Holy Family, Joseph has a minor role and just in the background. Only from the 15th century artists gave more attention to Joseph and made him visible as head of the Holy Family. When the bible speaks about Jesus’s brothers and sisters, those are children of Joseph from a previous marriage. Saint Joseph is the patron saint of family life, fathers, unborn children and carpenters and in Western Christianity his celebration day is March 19th. And in Italy, this special day of Saint Joseph (San Giuseppe in Italian) is also Father’s Day. Joseph might be a lesser celebrity in the biblical world, but as “father” he is a figure that means so much in everyone’s life. Even when he is a foster-father.

Robert Campin (1378 – 1444), “Saint Joseph” (right-hand panel of the “Annunciation Triptych – Merode Altarpiece”) (c. 1430), 65x27cm, Oil on Panel, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This is the right-hand panel of a triptych. The old man Joseph, who is engaged to the Virgin Mary, works in his carpenter shop. The mousetraps he made, on the bench and in the shopwindow opening onto the street, are symbols of the crucifixion of Jesus which will only happen 33 years later. Jesus on the cross is considered the devil’s mousetrap.

Robert Campin (1378 – 1444), “Annunciation Triptych – Merode Altarpiece” (c. 1430), 65x118cm, Oil on Panel, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Looking at the triptych as a whole, the middle panel shows the moment when the Virgen Mary gets the message from the angel Gabriel that she will be pregnant with Jesus. It’s even the moment of the divine impregnation itself. On the right panel Joseph in his workshop, busy making the mousetraps and no idea what is happening to Mary at this very moment. On the left the donors of this triptych.

French 15th century, “The Expectant Madonna with Saint Joseph” (c.1435), 71x35cm, Tempura on Panel, National Gallery of Art (Samuel H. Kress Collection), Washington DC.

When Joseph was engaged to Mary he found out she became pregnant, and certainly not by him! Joseph was very much doubting if he should indeed marry her. As he considered splitting up, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit.” As is written in the bible, see Matthew 1: 18-20. On the picture above you can see Mary, pregnant with Jesus, and Joseph as an old man doubting about what happened. This is not a very common image to see in paintings and it’s obviously a mysterious element in the whole story and even a bit embarrassing for Joseph. The message from the angel to Joseph is then solving this element to everyone’s satisfaction, including Joseph’s. From the 15th century the Holy Family (Maria, Jesus and Joseph) as a subject became way more popular and that helped to raise Joseph in public esteem. Joseph is from then on represented more sympathetically and more prominently.

George de la Tour (1593 – 1652), “Saint Joseph the Carpenter” (1642), 137x102cm, Oil on Canvas, Louvre, Paris.

This painting by George de la Tour (1642, from the Louvre) cannot be missed in any story about Joseph. As patron saint of carpenters, Joseph is working on a beam, helped by his foster son Jesus. The arrangement of pieces of wood on the floor evokes a cross and prefigures the crucifixion of Jesus. The young Jesus with the candlelight shining on his face makes already a reference to becoming the “Light of the World”. George de la Tour shows that even Jesus lived a simple and innocent earthly life, but he included divinity’s presence by way of the light of the candle.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 – 1682), “The Holy Family” (1650), 144x188cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Here we see the Holy family with a playing Jesus and two caring parents in a domestic scene. It shows home life but also work, symbolized by Saint Joseph’s carpenter tools on the right. The almost leading role of Joseph, the foster father, corresponds to the increased worship of Joseph as a father figure within the Holy Family. Over the centuries the image of Joseph developed from a grumpy old man to a caring – and younger – father.

Sir John Everett Millais (1829 – 1896), “Christ in the House of His Parents – The Carpenter’s Shop” (1850), 86x140cm, Oil on Canvas, Tate Gallery, London.

This is a painting from the Pre-Raphaelite painter Millais, showing a scene from the boyhood of Jesus and placed in Joseph’s carpenter workshop. It’s full of symbolic messages. Jesus, as a boy, has wounded himself at a nail and is being comforted by his parents Mary and Joseph. Blood is dripping from his hand on his foot. Both spots of blood are foreshadowing the crucifixion. On the right we see the young Saint John the Baptist with a bowl of water, as reference to the baptizing of Jesus Christ. At the back on the wall is a carpenter’s triangle, referring to the Holy Trinity of God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus son of God. And the dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, is sitting on the ladder.

The pre-Raphaelites wanted to strip-away all traditions of painting since Raphael. Millais removed all beauty and placed the scene in an ordinary carpenter workshop, with common people as the Holy Family. The picture prompted many negative reviews. The Times described it as ‘revolting’ and objected to the way in which the artist had dared to depict the Holy Family as ordinary, lowly people in a humble carpenter’s shop. Charles Dickens was one of the most vehement critics, describing the young Christ as ‘a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed gown’. The painting can be seen in the Tate Gallery, London, where it’s now considered one of their masterpieces.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 – 1682), “The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities – The Pedroso Murillo” (c. 1680), 293x207cm, Oil on Canvas, National Gallery, London.

This painting illustrates the belief that Jesus was both human and divine, by placing him in the middle of the two “Trinities”. The vertical line is the Holy Trinity, with God the Father, the Holy Ghost (the dove), and Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus looks up towards heaven, but affectionately holds hands with his human parents, Mary and Joseph. The three together, as the horizontal line, make up the Earthly Trinity. Mary’s loving gaze and gracefully upturned palm are directed towards her young son. Joseph looks out of the picture towards us, inviting us to adore Jesus. Murillo transforms a complex theological principle into a very human and accessible image. With Jospeh as the connecting figure between us humans and the divine world of God.

Mary and the Immaculate Conception

Mary and the Immaculate Conception

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 – 1682), “The Aranjuez Immaculate Conception” (1675), 222x118cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Today December 8th is the day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. It’s one of the major Christian feast days and it’s a holiday in many Catholic countries. But what is it about; what is the Immaculate Conception of Mary? First of all: do not confuse it with Mary’s virginal conception of her son Jesus! That’s only happening on March 25th, when it’s announced to Mary that she will be pregnant, being 9 months before the birth of her son Jesus, which happens on December 25th and that’s Christmas day. December 8th is about the Immaculate Conception of Mary herself, and it’s exactly 9 months before another feast day in the Catholic church, the Nativity or Birth of Mary, and that’s on September 8th. It’s all easy to remember when you count with those 9 months pregnancy.

The Immaculate Conception of Mary is nothing more than that she was born immaculate, pure, spotless and without any sin. That’s in contrary to any other human being. Everyone is born with the Original Sin, which is the inherited sin of Adam and Eve, who were eating the forbidden fruit while being in Paradis. That was the first sin of mankind ever, and it became an inheritable sin. It means that every baby is born with this Original Sin, to be washed away by baptizing, as soon as possible after birth. Mary on the contrary was born without this Original Sin, she was born Immaculate. That also makes her the one and only human being ever been without any sin. And Mary being so immaculate and the purest of all, is celebrated on December 8th.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746 – 1828), “The Immaculate Conception” (1783), 80x41cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Mardrid.

The parents of Mary are Anna and Joachim, and these two are in that sense the grandparents of Jesus. Many believe that Anna, Mary’s mother, stayed a virgin herself while becoming pregnant of Mary. That’s not correct and officially considered an error by the Catholic doctrine. It’s also not so that Mary, after being born without the Original Sin, by default stayed without any personal sin. In general however, it’s believed that Mary was born without sin and stayed without sin.

Mary’s Immaculate Conception is a doctrine, being established as a faith by Popes and widely accepted within the Church. Already celebrated since the 5th century, the doctrine was only dogmatically defined in 1854, when Pope Pius IX declared so with “papal infallibility”. So, since then it’s a “true” story.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696 – 1770), “The Immaculate Conception” (1767), 281x155cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

It’s for artists not so easy to depict the concept of Immaculate Conception. Painters were struggling with the concept for long time, and only from the 17th Century onwards a standard image developed, based on paintings from the circle of the Spanish painter Murillo. It’s mostly an image of Mary in a heavenly realm with clouds and a golden light, surrounded by symbols of purity like white lilies and roses, with sometimes an image of God above Mary. On some painting symbols of the Original Sin, like snake and apple, can be seen at Her feet. Mary is standing on a crescent moon, symbol of virginity and chastity. It’s always an image of Mary herself and certainly without the baby Jesus, as that happened only later in the life of the Virgin Mary.

Assumption of Mary

Tiziano “Titian” Vecelli (1488 – 1576), “The Assumption of the Virgin Mary” (1516), 690x360cm, Oil on Panel, Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice.

Today August 15 is the official feast day of the “Assumption of Mary”. It’s a holiday in many, mostly Catholic, countries. But what is it about and how has it been depicted in art? This day is to celebrate that the Holy Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, is taken up into Heaven at the end of her earthly life. It’s not so much a historic event, but it’s deeply embedded in the Christian tradition, belief and faith. The historic element is that somewhere around the year 41, Mary passed away. From around the 3rd century the belief was added that the body of Mary was taken up into Heaven and in that sense she followed her son Jesus Christ, who was crucified and subsequently taken into Heaven about 10 years earlier. From the 5th century onwards, it was added that all the apostles were present at this very moment, which is depicted on the many paintings with Mary’s Assumption. They are the group of guys looking up in astonishment when Mary is taken into Heaven, up into the arms of God. On most paintings Mary goes up with the help of angels, like on the gigantic Titian altar piece, almost 7×4 meters, which is still on its original location in the Frari Church in Venice.

Annibale Carracci (1560 – 1609), “The Assumption of the Virgin Mary” (1587), 130x97cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

There is still an endless dispute about the moment just before the heavenly Assumption of Mary. Did Mary only fell asleep, the so-called “Dormition”, and then went up? Or did she actually also really die? The official Catholic dogma around the subject is not clarifying this element. Pope Pius XII proclaimed in 1950 that Mary indeed “completed her earthly life” and that her body and soul went up into heavenly glory. The Pope used his Papal authority to declare this dogma and did so with “Papal Infallibility”. He made not clear if Mary just fell asleep and went up, or if she also really died before going up into Heaven. On the Titian painting, Mary goes up into Heaven and no indication of the moment just before the Assumption. On the Carracci painting from the Prado, Madrid, Mary is ascending from a tomb, which would indicate that Mary indeed died. On the Rubens altar piece, still in its original location in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, the tomb is also present.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), “The Assumption of the Virgin Mary” (1626), 490x325cm, Oil on Panel, Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp.

I think the Assumption of Mary is a beautiful belief and it’s great to depict this story. Every viewer of a painting with the Assumption of Mary, the mother of Christ, has a mother him- or herself and many viewers are also “mother” themselves. And all those mothers will one day pass away. It must have given – and still gives – a lot of comfort to know or believe that Mary, as the mother of all mothers, was taken up into heaven after her death. It gives hope to everyone, and certainly to our mothers, that one day they will follow Mary up into Heaven. August 15 is a public holiday, but it’s above all the ultimate and sacred Mother’s Day.

Saint Luke the Evangelist

Who is Saint Luke and how to recognize him in art? Luke is one of the Four Evangelists and the author of the Gospel of Luke, one of the New Testament books that describe the life of Christ. Luke is definitely a historic figure, who lived in the 1st Century and originally came from the then Greek city of Antioch, now on the Turkish-Syrian border. He was an physician, painter and writer and died at the age of 84. As he is one of the Four Evangelists, he became pretty popular and important in Western art. Luke was also a physician, and thus his name is used for many Saint Luke Hospitals all over the world.

Guercino (1591 – 1666), “Saint Luke Displaying a Painting of the Virgin” (1652), 221x180cm, Oil on Canvas, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.

In the 8th Century a story popped up telling that Luke once painted a portrait of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child. Most likely just a cute legend, but it helps with recognizing Luke in art. He is shown as a painter at work, and his model is the Virgin. This also made Luke become the patron saint of painters. He gave his name to the Guilds of Saint Luke, which were the trade unions for painters in the 16th and 17th Century. Here is a 1652 painting by Guercino. Saint Luke shows the viewer his painting with the Virgin and Child. And look what’s on the table behind him. It’s a book. That refers to the Gospel he wrote. And on the book is an inkstand in the form of an ox. And the ox is the very most common attribute to recognize Saint Luke the Evangelist. The other three Evangelists also have their own symbols: Matthew – angel; Marcus – lion; John – eagle.

Here is another painting, from c. 1603, by El Greco (“The Greek”). His real name is Doménikos Theotokópoulos, a Greek painter but mainly living and working in Toledo in Spain. El Greco painted this magnificent portrait of Saint Luke for the Toledo Cathedral where it still can be seen. He must have felt close to Saint Luke, as they both came from Greece. Saint Luke shows us the Gospel, and his painting of the Virgin and Child is now incorporated in the Gospel book itself.

El Greco (1541 – 1614), “Saint Luke the Evangelist” (c. 1603), 100x76cm, Oil on Canvas, Toledo Cathedral, Spain.

Most common is to depict Luke as a writer, together with an ox or a bull, which animal became Luke’s trademark symbol. The ox or bull, as an animal often used for offers, refers to Christ’s sacrifice and crucifixion. Here are a few Dutch Old Master prints from series with the Four Evangelists. The person writing, depicted together with an ox, can only be Saint Luke the Evangelist. Once you make the link between Luke and the ox, it will be super easy to recognize this saint.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640)

On the 30th of May, 1640, death of Peter Paul Rubens, the most important Baroque painter from the Flemish Netherlands. Rubens was not only a well-educated scholar and painter, but also businessman and diplomat. He made religious altarpieces, portraits of royalty, mythological paintings and hunting landscapes. All his paintings are impressive big pieces with lots of color and typical Baroque-emphasized movement and sensuality. He run a large studio in Antwerp which is now the Rubenshuis Museum.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), “The Descent from the Cross” (1613), 420x320cm, Oil on Panel, Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, Belgium.

Here are two of his paintings. It’s “The Descent from the Cross” (1613), which is the 4×3 meters magnificent central panel of a triptych, which is still in its original place in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium. The body of Christ is lowered from the cross, with very energetic support of Saint John (in the red mantle). Mary Magdalena is gracefully supporting Christ’ leg and Mary, a mother in despair, is stretching out her arms towards her son. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are placed on both sides of the scenel.

Also here is a 2×3 meters big painting of the legendary hero “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” (1614). Chief counselor to the Persian king, Daniel fell victim to his jealous co-officials. They plotted against him and threw him into a den of lions. But that plot truly failed! Daniel keeps on staring up and praying towards the light of heaven. And he stayed unharmed! Next day he was freed without a single scratch. A strong moral: look up when things get you down; keep your head up and think positive!

Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” (1614), 224x351cm, Oil on Canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Mannerism

Bronzino (1503 – 1572), “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid” (1545), 146x116cm, Oil on Wood, The National Gallery, London.

Mannerism is a European art style that follows Renaissance and precedes Baroque, originating in Italy around 1520 and spreading over Europe. Mannerism lasted until the end of the 16th Century, when Mannerism gradually turned into the Baroque style.

How did Mannerism originate and what is it all about? The artists from the Renaissance, like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, excelled in painting and sculpting ideal beauty, balanced proportions and ultimate elegance. Their art had reached the top of what could be achieved; Renaissance was considered the peak of perfection. That gave the next generation of artists a feeling that they had not much to add anymore, and therefor they started to search for additional artistry on top of the Renaissance skills and values. This next generation started to add wisdom and intelligence to their art. And that resulted in a “manner” of over-sophisticated elegance. Mannerism is more about artificial and intellectual beauty than the perfect natural beauty from the Renaissance times.

The word “Mannerism” comes from the Italian word “maniera”, meaning “manner”. The Mannerist painters were painting in the “manner” of Renaissance painters like Michelangelo, but topped it up with their own intellectual and sophisticated inventions. One could say that they overdid it a bit. The mannerist artists tried to exceed Renaissance art, but that resulted in an overcomplicated way of depicting nature. And ultimately that was followed by the even more complex manner of depicting beauty during the Baroque.

Look at Bronzino’s “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid” (1545). It’s an almost bizarre composition and an exaggerated anatomy of figures. It reminds us of Michelangelo, but with an over-the-top approach of beauty. And the meaning behind this painting is so over-intellectual, that one hardly understands what it is about. It’s passion and play, time and despair, love and seduction; with every figure having it’s own symbolic meaning and art historians nowadays in doubt of the actual meaning. Or look at the Virgin Mary with Child (1540) by Parmigianino. In his efforts to create more elegance, Parmigianino gave his figures those long stretched bodies. And ironically, the painting is now just known as “The Madonna with the Long Neck”. Both Bronzino and Parmigianino want to express that there is more to achieve than the old-fashioned way of traditional Renaissance painting. They show the viewer their new “manner” of dealing with art and beauty. Mannerist painters proudly created Modern Art in the 16th Century.

Parmigianino (1503 – 1540), “The Madonna with the Long Neck” (c. 1537), 216x132cm, Oil on Wood, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Pontormo (1494 – 1557)

Pontormo (1494 – 1557), “Visitation of the Virgin and Saint Elizabeth” (1528), Oil on Board”, 202x156cm, Church of San Michele e San Francesco, Carmignano, Italy.

On the 24th of May, 1494, birth of Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo, simply known as Pontormo. He is famous for his Mannerist way of painting, with figures in a floating, almost dancing, manner. Pontormo painted in and around Florence, often supported by the Medici family. Here is Pontormo’s “Visitation of the Virgin and Saint Elizabeth”, housed in the church of San Francesco e Michele in Carmignano, about 20 km west of Florence. The Visitation is the visit of the Virgin Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, to Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist, (Luke 1:39–56).

Pontormo’s work was quite out of fashion for several centuries. Though he has received renewed attention by contemporary art historians. Indeed, in 2002, Pontormo’s “Portrait of a Halberdier” was the world’s most expensive painting by an Old Master. The Halberdier holds a halberd, a combination of spear and battle-axe. The sitter’s identity has been much discussed. It could be the young nobleman Francesco Guardi at the age of around fifteen. But it has also been suggested that the portrait represents Cosimo de’ Medici himself.

Pontormo (1494 – 1557), “Portrait of a Halberdier (Francesco Guardi?)” (1529), Oil on Panel transferred to Canvas, 95x73cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Pontormo’s closest pupil was Bronzino, who followed Pontormo’s style. Of several paintings it’s disputed if the author is Pontormo or Bronzino.