Monday, 9 December 2013

Art for Advent (9): ‘The Dream
of Saint Joseph’ by Rembrandt

‘The Dream of Saint Joseph’ by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

Patrick Comerford

My choice of a work of art for this morning [Monday, 9 December 2013] is The Dream of Saint Joseph by the Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), known simply as Rembrandt.

Rembrandt is one of the greatest painters in European art and the most important in Dutch history. His best-known work is probably The Night Watch (1642) which was the highlight of my visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam some years ago. His greatest works include his portraits of his contemporaries, especially his self-portraits, and his depictions of Biblical scenes, often using members of the Jewish community in Amsterdam as models for his Biblical figures.

Rembrandt painted at least two paintings on the theme of Saint Joseph’s dreams His Joseph’s Dream in the Stable in Bethlehem, dating from 1645, is a work in oil on canvas, and can be seen in Ehemals Staatliche Museum in Berlin.

A second painting, The Dream of Saint Joseph, which I have chosen for this morning, is also a work in oil on canvas, and measures 105 x 83 cm. It was completed ca 1650-1655. It was bought in 1885 by the Museum of Fine Arts (Szépmûvészeti Múzeum) in Budapest from Alois Hause in Munich.

I sometimes wonder what Saint Joseph must have thought in these weeks of Advent, before he went to Bethlehem with the pregnant Mary

When he realises that Mary is pregnant, Saint Matthew’s Gospel tells us, “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’.”

Saint Joseph has a second dream after the birth of Christ, and after the Magi visit the new-born Christ Child. Saint Joseph is then warned in a dream by an angel of the Lord to take the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child and flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous plans (see Matthew 2: 13-15).

In Egypt, Joseph has a third dream when Herod dies, and is told by an angel of the Lord to “take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel” (see Matthew 2: 19-20).

Perhaps, when reading these Gospel stories, we should not lose sight of the resonances, especially in the last dream, of the stories in the Book Genesis of Joseph, who interprets the dreams of Pharaoh in Egypt.

So, Joseph in his first dream is certainly worth pondering in these weeks of Advent as a person of faith that translates into action. This painting by Rembrandt imagines the angel coming gently but insistently with a message to Joseph in his second dream, telling him must do to save the life of the Christ Child. These dreams come to an end with the third dream, which shows us that Joseph is not only a dreamer of dreams, but also a doer of deeds. He is not only a man of vision, but also a man of action – a combination that I certainly find a challenge.

Tomorrow: The Church of ‘Il Redentore’ in Venice, by Canaletto.

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