Image © website Museo Nacional del Prado
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (Seville, Spain 1617 – 1682), The Holy Family with a Little Bird, around 1650, oil on canvas, 144 cm x 188 cm, Madrid, Spain, Prado Museum.
Month of October.
Contemplating this painting always brings great joy, because the painter favoured the simple, everyday dimension of the life of Jesus' family. They had finally returned to Nazareth, as evidenced by the carpenter's tools on the right side of the scene.
The great Andalusian painter was really admired by the local clientele because he was able to narrate the events depicted exceptionally, as well as to make them topical and contemporary.
Devotion, the supernatural, idealisation, reality, everyday life: all these elements combine in Murillo's religious paintings to create an effect that enchants us and warms our hearts. This painting, for example, was immediately loved by those who commissioned it and passed through several private collections until it was bought in 1744 by Elisabeth Farnese, Queen of Spain, a great admirer of our artist's work.
We mentioned the daily scene depicted here. The choice of the theme is a response to the development, in Spain from the end of the 16th century, of a dual devotion: to the Child Jesus - often expressed not only in painting but also in sculpture, through full-length works covered in real clothes - and to Saint Joseph, who embodied values such as generosity, discretion and self-sacrifice. It is no coincidence, then, that the scene is dominated by the figures of the father and son, with Mary, the mother, almost relegated to the background, spinning, even though she has a watchful eye on the baby Jesus.
It is precisely the father and son who are the protagonists of an exquisite and playful scene. Jesus, lovingly supported by Joseph, holds a small bird in his hand and seems to keep it away from the little dog, whose attention has been caught by the little bird. The child smiles amused, because he knows that the dog will not be able to reach out and take the bird away from him, which at that moment is the great treasure in his possession.
Murillo's ability to represent the scene is truly unique. There are details that embellish it and make it seem real. Look at the delicacy of Jesus' right hand holding the little sparrow or the sandal on Joseph's right foot. Try to count how many shades of brown there are and let yourself be fascinated by the play of light that most of all illuminates Jesus' face: through this significant signal we are told that he is the most important character. Both the tail and paw of the dog in the foreground seem to be real, as does the wicker basket in which Mary has placed the clothes she will probably wash later...
Jesus, Joseph, Mary, be the salvation of my soul!
Jesus, Joseph and Mary, I give you my heart and soul.
Being a father entails introducing children to life and reality. Not holding them back, being overprotective or possessive, but rather making them capable of deciding for themselves, enjoying freedom and exploring new possibilities. Perhaps for this reason, Joseph is traditionally called a “most chaste” father. That title is not simply a sign of affection, but the summation of an attitude that is the opposite of possessiveness. Chastity is freedom from possessiveness in every sphere of one’s life. Only when love is chaste, is it truly love. A possessive love ultimately becomes dangerous: it imprisons, constricts and makes for misery. God himself loved humanity with a chaste love; he left us free even to go astray and set ourselves against him. The logic of love is always the logic of freedom, and Joseph knew how to love with extraordinary freedom. He never made himself the centre of things. He did not think of himself, but focused instead on the lives of Mary and Jesus.
Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter Patris Corde 7, 8 December 2020
(Contribution by Vito Pongolini)