Wandering in the Pinacoteca in Siena, Italy, I started feeling sorry for Joseph, the often-neglected member of the Holy Family. It seems that in the 14th and 15th centuries, at least in Italy, there was a tradition that Joseph was an exhausted old man. His wife Mary is always shown as a pretty young woman, but poor Joseph in these paintings looks tired and put-upon.
Joseph disappears in the Gospels after the episode where Jesus stays behind in the Temple after a family visit, and his worried parents have to search for him. In the serene Nativity scene above, are we to think of Joseph as the only one who foresaw the troubles ahead?
The Biblical story tells us that the Holy Family soon became a family of refugees fleeing persecution, traveling to Egypt to avoid the wrath of King Herod. Was Joseph resting up for the journey ahead?
And another image:
Here, the Three Kings are just arriving in the background. In the story, Joseph has already traveled far with a pregnant wife, and now he has an infant as well, and faces more trudging down a dirt road. Is Joseph thinking, “Enough with the gold, frankincense and myrhh. How about a tent, a baby backpack and some down sleeping bags?”
In the painting below, Joseph has his walking stick at the ready.
In all the joy of the holidays, I’d like to remember those who are refugees, or old, or tired, or discouraged. I’d like to remember those who stay in the background and do the heavy lifting. I’d like to remember those who are in over their heads for one reason or another. I’d like to remember those who stick around to clean up after everyone else has celebrated and headed home. I don’t know the theology that informed these paintings, but I have a lot of sympathy for Joseph.
Simone di Filippo, Nativity, circa 1380, Bologna
In my favorite fresco, a humble anonymous work I wrote about a few days ago, Joseph looks aged, but cheerful and downright sprightly. That’s my wish for all of us. My post about this delightful fresco is at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/12/21/a-medieval-dan…-for-christmas/
Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!