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Art for meditation - December 2021

Immagine 2021 11 30 120733

© Brukenthal National Museum

Jacob Jordaens (Antwerp, Belgium 1593 – 1678), The Holy Family, around 1625-30, oil on canvas, 113.1 cm x 118.5 cm, Sibiu, Romania, Brukenthal National Museum.

Month of December.

With this reflection, we conclude this journey we undertook by the figure of Saint Joseph, who was the guardian of the Holy Family. We do so with the help of a painting which is in some ways exceptional. It was done by one of Antwerp's most important painters, second in fame only to the great Peter Paul Rubens, whose main collaborator he became after Anthony Van Dick's departure for Italy.

Now, let us be enveloped in the atmosphere of the painting we are contemplating. The scene is set in a bare interior, where a family is gathered. The fact that it is the family of Jesus is clear from just one character: the little kid in the foreground on the right is certainly John the Baptist, as can be inferred from the cross-ended staff and the camel's fur shirt he is wearing. We see immediately that the Holy Family is in the centre, whereas the two women on the sides could be Elizabeth - the Baptist's mother - on the right and a servant or neighbour on the left. What strikes us the most is certainly the play of light and shadow created by the two candles. It is an artificial light and it is probably no coincidence that they are placed in the hands of the two mothers: the painter seems to be wanting to create a link between light and life, between light and the salvation brought by Jesus and announced by John. The candles not only give light to the painting, but also become its origin, shaping and outlining the characters: without the candles the scene would be completely dark and we would not be able to distinguish anyone!

Another thing that catches our attention is the play of glances the painter has created. Some of them are directed within the painting, such as Joseph’s, who seems to want to check that his wife and son are well. The only gazes that leave the canvas and are directed to us as spectators are those of Jesus and Mary. It is as if through this painting the painter wanted to establish a bond of affection and devotion between the viewer and the Virgin and her Son. It matters little that they do not have halos, that they are not seated on a throne or that their clothes are not very elegant or refined. Their preeminence over the other characters is conferred by the light of the candle that Mary holds in her hand. That same light replaces and becomes a halo, a throne, elegance. That same light turns our gaze, like Joseph’s, to Jesus, who is our Saviour, and to Mary, his Mother and our advocate!

 

We should always consider whether we ourselves are protecting Jesus and Mary, for they are also mysteriously entrusted to our own responsibility, care and safekeeping. The Son of the Almighty came into our world in a state of great vulnerability. He needed to be defended, protected, cared for and raised by Joseph. God trusted Joseph, as did Mary, who found in him someone who would not only save her life, but would always provide for her and her child. In this sense, Saint Joseph could not be other than the Guardian of the Church, for the Church is the continuation of the Body of Christ in history, even as Mary’s motherhood is reflected in the motherhood of the Church. In his continued protection of the Church, Joseph continues to protect the child and his mother, and we too, by our love for the Church, continue to love the child and his mother.

Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter Patris Corde 5, 8 December 2020

(Contribution by Vito Pongolini)

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