One of the inspirations for my book Joseph and the Three Gifts was this amazing image – 'The Adoration of the Magi' (sometimes called 'The Star of Bethlehem') – created by Edward Burne-Jones and rendered as a breathtakingly detailed tapestry by William Morris in 1890 to hang in the chapel of Exeter College, Oxford.
When, a few years back, this Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece was exhibited at Tate Britain, I spent a long time sitting in front of it, contemplating both its miraculous making and the ancient mysteries of which it speaks.
The focus of the tapestry is clearly Mary, dressed in eye-drawing blues and wine red and separated from the worshiping Magi by the ethereal presence of the floating, green-winged, star-nursing angel.
But what later caught my eye and riveted my questioning mind was the figure on the left of the image: an old man, slightly stooped, clutching a bundle kindling, gathered perhaps to build a fire to warm the mother and babe on a dark, cold night...
A woodcutter? No, the halo dictates his identity as Joseph, foster father to the Christ child. In the tangled foliage at his feel lies a small hatchet as if dropped in his astonishment – on returning from his fuel-gathering – as he beholds the scene of great nobles bowing before his wife and the baby who looks back at them with old, wise eyes.
What struck me was that Joseph was left out of the central action of the scene: was on the periphery of the tableau: an attendant, but minor, figure in the drama.
So began my slow discovery that, again and again, in images from great art to all manner of popular depictions – including nativity plays and Christmas cards – Joseph's fate is almost always on the fringes of an event of cataclysmic timelessness...
Some months later, in Venice, the story of Joseph and Three Gifts came to me and led to its eventual publication as a book and recent serialisation on BBC radio.
This Christmas, we received a card from some old friends featuring the Burne-Jones/Morris tapestry –– but in being necessarily truncated to fit the designated envelope-size, guess who got trimmed out of the picture?
Not in this instance, obviously, but – just maybe – for a few readers and listeners I've helped put Joseph back where he belongs in this age-old tale that we love to tell and share year-on-year, century-after-century...