Tag: National gallery of Art

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.

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634) and playing golf on ice

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634) and playing golf on ice

It’s winter. But the real winters are far behind us. When will we skate again on frozen rivers? Let’s have a look at the Dutch 17th century winter-wonderland paintings by Hendrick Avercamp. And let’s speak about those harsh winters and about the Dutch as the inventors of playing golf.

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634), “A Scene on the Ice” (c. 1625), 39x77cm, Oil on Panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

First about the harsh winters. In the 16th and 17th century a climatic shift happened, nicknamed “The Little Ice Age”. It was an era with severe winters that started early and lasted long. The frigid weather came with heavy snow, freezing temperatures, and the Dutch waterways and lakes were frozen for months. Avercamp specialized in painting winter scenes and he could draw and paint what he witnessed firsthand. In his paintings, people young and old, rich and poor, share the joy and the hardship of The Little Ice Age. Avercamp shaped our perception of the Dutch winter.

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634), “Winter Games on the Frozen River IJssel” (c. 1626), 20x33cm, Pen and Ink with Watercolor on Paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Avercamp had a keen eye for detail. He captured children skating and gentlemen playing “kolf” on the ice. Avercamp emphasized the social contrast between the elegantly dressed kolf players, who were successful Amsterdam merchants, and the common people like fishermen and beggars. Peasants and tradesmen, young and old, men and women, on the ice everyone mingles and Avercamp knows how to tell those winter stories.

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634), “Winter Landscape with Skaters” (c. 1622), 19x31cm, Pen and Ink with Watercolor on Paper, Teylers Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands.

The frozen rivers and lakes were the perfect place to play “kolf”. It’s a Dutch early form of golf, mainly played by the elite gentlemen. Kolf as a game was very popular in The Netherlands. It was played wherever there was space. Streets and public squares were favorite places, but city and church councils were not so happy with the cost of this sport, mainly the broken windows. There are many official ordinances, dating back to the 15th century, banning playing kolf from the narrow city streets and around churches. Kolf had to be played outside the municipal borders. And the severe winters offered the perfect solution. The kolf players took to the ice and found all the space (and joy) they needed for their game.

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634), “Enjoying the Ice near a Town” (c. 1620), 47x89cm, Oil on Panel, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The Dutch in the 17th century were leading in wool trading with Scotland and that’s how “kolf” migrated to the Scots, where it is played on their coastal sandy grasslands, as modern “golf” on modern golf courses. Scots are right in claiming the origin of nowadays version of golf, but it’s the Dutch who are the original inventors of the game, known then as kolf and as depicted many times by Hendrick Avercamp.

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634), “Kolfplayers on the Ice” (1625), 29x51cm, Oil on Panel, Collection Edward and Sally Speelman.

Saint Lawrence

Bernardo Strozzi (1581 – 1644), “Saint Lawrence Distributing the Treasures of the Church” (1625), 118x158cm, Oil on Canvas, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC.

It’s August 10, the feast day of Saint Lawrence. Who is he and how to recognize him in art? Lawrence was a deacon of the Christian Church in 3rd Century Rome. The Roman Emperor of that time prosecuted the Christians and ordered Lawrence to hand over all the riches of the Church. Lawrence thought differently and quickly gave everything away to the poor of the city. When the Emperor asked him where the treasures were, Lawrence answered, while pointing at the poor: “Look, those are the true treasures of the Church”.

Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne (1631 – 1681), “The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence” (1660), 82x69cm, Oil on Canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

That act of charity was not very well received by the Roman Emperor and Lawrence was put to death by being roasted on a BBQ type of gridiron. After a while on the grill, Lawrence made his famous cheerful remark, “I’m well done. Turn me over!”. And so he became an important martyr and the patron saint for cooks, chefs and comedians.

Juan Correa de Vivar (c1510 – 1566), “Saint Lawrence” (1559), 181x78cm, Oil on Panel, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The grill became the symbol of Saint Lawrence and that’s the most easy way to recognize him in art. Quite a few “San Lorenzo” churches in Rome are dedicated to this saint. The grill iron can still be seen in the Basilica of San Lorenze in Lucina, Rome. And the name of Saint Lawrence is now all over the world. The French landed on August 10, 1535 in the estuary of the Great Lakes between Canada and the USA and they named it the Gulf and River of Saint Lawrence.