Domenikos Theotokopulos, known as El Greco (Candia, Greece 1541 – Toledo, Spain 1614), St. Joseph and the Christ Child, 1597-99, oil on canvas, 289 cm x 147 cm, Toledo, Spain, Chapel of Saint Joseph
19 March, Solemnity of Saint Joseph
I am sure some of you are wondering why I have not chosen a picture of the Holy Family for this month. The simple answer is that I wanted to make a special dedication to St Joseph in this month of March. In fact, this painting - which I personally find wonderful - made me think that the whole Family of Jesus is actually present. As a matter of fact, Mary is on this side of the painting, in our same position, smiling and contemplating her little Jesus who has run to embrace his father, to cling to him trustingly, to receive his affectionate caress. If a camera had existed in those days, this painting would be a picture taken by Our Lady!
Today, this painting is still in the chapel for which it was painted over three centuries ago. It is a small building in the maze of streets of Toledo’s old city. Here were the houses that Martín Ramírez, a wealthy merchant from this Spanish town, gave to Saint Teresa for the foundation of his fifth convent. The project never came to fruition and the Ramírez heirs erected the present chapel in 1594. Three years later, they commissioned El Greco to decorate it. The great painter did so with four paintings, the most important being this one, which has an impressive size and it is placed on the only central altar that we can see as soon as we enter the main door.
So, together with Mary, we contemplate this sweet and affectionate father caressing his son Jesus who clings to him. We are struck by the simplicity and beauty of the colours: the blue of Joseph's dress and the yellow of his cloak, and the beautiful red of Jesus' robe. Joseph's gaze is turned downwards, as if to underline his humility and shy character. Yet it is precisely because of these qualities that we can see him being crowned by the three magnificent angels in the upper part of the painting, who, with daring twirls in the air, are carrying crowns and white lilies, symbol of purity which, together with the staff he holds firmly in his right hand, is a typical attribute of Saint Joseph.
There’s another notable detail. In the background, on the right, we can see a beautiful panorama of Toledo. In it, a large building stands out. It is the Hospital de Santa Cruz, founded in the 16th century by Cardinal Pedro Gonzalez de Mendoza to house, feed and raise the orphans of the city. We can imagine that such a clear reference to this place was intended as an act of entrustment to Saint Joseph of all the less fortunate children of Toledo. I think that El Greco was very proud of this work, at least judging by the signature on the scroll in the bottom left corner.
Contemplating this beautiful representation of St Joseph and thinking of our fathers - still here on earth or already in heaven - let us make our own the prayer that the Holy Father wrote at the end of his apostolic letter:
Hail, Guardian of the Redeemer,
Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
To you God entrusted his only Son;
in you Mary placed her trust;
with you Christ became man.
Blessed Joseph, to us too,
show yourself a father
and guide us in the path of life.
Obtain for us grace, mercy and courage,
and defend us from every evil. Amen.
Pope Francis, apostolic letter Patris Corde, 8 December 2020
(Contribution by Vito Pongolini)