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JESUS, MARY & JOSEPH: THE HOLY FAMILY 

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'The Holy Family': this name is given to the infant Jesus, his mother Mary, her husband Joseph, her mother Anne and her cousin Elizabeth.  Paintings of the Holy Family became particularly popular during the Renaissance, as a model of the ideal family.

The Holy Family, workshop of Raphael

Paintings of the Holy Family often show some object that is a presentiment of Jesus' horrible death: a little wooden cross, some carelessly placed nails, etc. Raphael has, thank goodness, ignored this tradition. Here Mary plays happily with her chubby little son, both seeminly unaware of the future. Some commentators suggests that the veil Mary dangles over Jesus is a reference to the shroud that would one day cover his body. Let us hope they are wrong, and that Mary is merely playing with her little son as any mother would.
Raphael, like all Renaissance artists, ignored historical accuracy: his Mary is more high-born Italian noblewoman than Jewish peasant girl. The real Mary could only have dreamed of the clothes and jewels this Mary wears. 


The Holy Family with a Little Bird, Murillo, circa 1650 

The Holy Family with a Little Bird, Murillo, circa 1650

Murillo's Holy Family looks and acts like a normal family. Mary is spinning, Joseph's workshop is nearby (at right), and this family has pets they play with. Jesus is blond, an historical impossibility - but then this is a Spanish painting, and blond-haired children were rare and prized in medieval Spain. The little bird is a goldfinch, a symbol of Christ's Passion, since goldfinchs eat thistles and thorns like the ones used in the Crown of Thorns. Murillo's Joseph is strong, young and in control, refuting paintings that showed him as an old man unlikely to have a sexual relationship with his wife Mary. Mary works quietly in the background, the ideal wife!  Both parents are focussed on Jesus - as we should be, the artist implies.


St Joseph the Carpenter, George de la Tour

St Joseph the Carpenter, George de la Tour

George de la Tour specialized in light/shadow (chiaroscuro) paintings, using indirect lighting to throw the subject into simple, almost giometric shapes. The effect is calming, meditative. Here Jesus holds a taper to illuminate the work Joseph is doing, but more light seems to come from his own face than from the taper. Though still a little boy, Jesus is already the Light of the World.


The Carpenter's Shop, Edward Stott

The Carpenter's Shop, Edward Stott

 


Father and Son, by Corbert Gauthier

Father and Son, by Corbert Gauthier

Many paintings of Joseph and Jesus have some object that makes reference to the future Passion of Jesus. The piece of wood that Jesus holds may be a reference to the cross-beam he will later carry to Calvary, but it may also be just a piece of wood he is learning to plane. His father Joseph watches him fondly, ready to lend a gnarled hand should the child need help. Gauthier's painting has a lovely serenity not often seen in representations of this scene.


The Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, Ghirlandaio

The Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, Ghirlandaio


Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, Dennis Creffield

Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, Dennis Creffield


Christ and his Mother studying the Scriptures, Henry Ossawa Tanner

Christ and his Mother studying the Scriptures, Henry Ossawa Tanner

 


St Joseph with the Infant Jesus, Guido Reni

St Joseph with the Infant Jesus, Guido Reni

It is said that Caravaggio threatened to kill Guido Reni, who admired and tried to emulate him. Poor Guido Reni. One can see the polarity between a man like Caravaggio and another, Reni, undoubtedly talented in his own way, who produced paintings like the one above. It is technically brilliant and visually pleasing, but contains none of the savage beauty of a Caravaggio. 

Joseph is an old man holding the miracle of a chubby baby Jesus. His expression is one of happy awe. The baby playfully tugs at his grey beard. There is a hidden message here: Joseph was too old to father a child, and so could not have been responsible for Mary's pregnancy. Nor was he likely to make demands of a sexual nature in the years after Jesus' birth.


Christ in the Carpenter's Shop, John Everett Millais ,1849

Christ in the Carpenter's Shop, John Everett Millais ,1849

Millais' painting idealizes the simple life of a carpenter/craftsman and his family. It shows Joseph as an industrious worker, Mary as a mother who kneels reverently before her son, and Jesus as a russet-haired, rather spindly boy who extends his cheek for his mother's kiss. The whole picture fits nicely into the 19th century ideal of a perfect family - hard-working father, submissive mother, obedient child.

Oddly enough, this painting was attacked as blasphemous when first exhibited. The figures of Jesus, Mary and Joseph were seen as insultingly 'ordinary'.


The Youth of Our Lord, John Herbert

The Youth of Our Lord, John Herbert

Jesus is a young man helping his father Joseph in the carpentry shop; Mary sits at her spinning wheel. Notice that the wood shavings on the ground have fallen into the shape of a cross, which Jesus stares at intently. 


Morgan Weistling Walking with God

Morgan Weistling Walking with God

 

 


Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Caravaggio

Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Caravaggio


'The Family', John Dickson Batten

'The Family', John Dickson Batten


The Newborn, George de la Tour

The Newborn, George de la Tour


Kissing the face of God, Weistling

Kissing the face of God, Weistling


Head of Mary, Jose de Ribera, 1637

Head of Mary, Jose de Ribera, 1637

In the painting above, Mary is still, listening, waiting to hear God's Word.She has already heard it once before, at the Annunciation. But this is a painting of an older, mature Mary, not often shown in Christian art.

 


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Paintings by

John Dickson Batten

Caravaggio

Dennis Creffield

Corbert Gauthier

Ghirlandaio

John Herbert

John Everett Millais

Murillo

Raphael

Guido Reni

Edward Stott

Henry Ossawa Tanner

George de la Tour

George de la Tour (2)

Morgan Weistling

Morgan Weistling (2)

 

 

The Bible text - Joseph and Mary, and the young Jesus

Luke 2:51-52

51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.

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Bible Art: Paintings and Artworks from the New Testament:  Young Jesus and his parents Mary and Joseph of Nazareth

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Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Fletcher