Thursday, 22 December 2011

GOOD MAN JOSEPH

My very good blog friend, Eudora, sent me this beautiful Adoration of the Magi as a Christmas greeting...


Painted with tempera on pine in c. 1420 it forms the right wing of a triptych altarpiece for the church in Ortenberg (a town in the district of Ortenau in Baden-Württemberg in Germany) but now housed in the Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt.

The picture is full of symbolism – such as the basket of bread (representing the Eucharist) hanging above the head of the Christ Child or the cross-shaped gift held by the King on the right, but what immediately caught my attention was the diminutive figure in the bottom left hand corner of the picture?

Who is that doing the cooking? By a process of elimination, there was only one person it could be...

I asked Eudora: "The chap with the cooking pan, is that Joseph?"

After a bit of research, Eudora, came back to me with some answers: yes it was Jesus' earthly father and the way he is represented by the anonymous artist is particularly interesting.


As one commentary puts it...
Joseph, the Virgin's husband who had not yet been canonized... was taken to typify the poor among the more distinguished personages of the Bible. In scenes of the Adoration of the Magi he is definitely depicted as the symbol of poverty... shown plying his craft as a carpenter or as the modest and diligent father of Jesus, doing household tasks, hanging up napkins to dry or cooking soup....

These pictures do not always evince a sympathy for poor people. Sometimes Joseph is mockingly ridiculed. In the Ortenberg Altarpiece, for example, the shabbily dressed, tiny figure is so fully engrossed in stirring the soup with a spoon he is grasping with both his hands, that he does not notice the presence of the Magi.
Personally, I'm with those who see in the image something less mocking and a reminder that this painting was made in an age when poverty and humility were regarded as virtues: I see Joseph as the practical provider of his little family.

The noble, ermine-clad magi may lay aside their crowns and bend their royal knees and present their mystical gifts to the holy Child, but Joseph just gets on with making sure there will be something to eat when the great and the good have gone on their way...

2 comments:

Eudora said...

Thank you Brian, very nice of you.

I'm agree with you and a bit desagree with some art theorists. I see no joke in this Joseph.

West took from East the veneration for Joseph. Some great figures of the Church claimed Joseph as a sublime figure before he was canonized and I guess that for the common people it would be easy to identify with "Saint of Silence".

scb said...

I love this portrayal of Joseph as a caring man who did what was necessary for the family. Thank you, Brian. (And thanks to Eudora for sending the lovely illustration to you in the first place.)