Friday, 21 March 2014

Art for Lent (17): ‘Christ in the House of
His Parents’ (1850) by John Everett Millais

‘Christ in the House of His Parents’ (1850) by John Everett Millais

Patrick Comerford

I have been writing over the past few days about paintings of Christ and Saint Joseph that are worth thinking about during Lent. I am continuing this theme this morning [21 March 2014] by inviting us to look at ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’ (1849-1850) by John Everett Millais.

This painting was completed by Millais in 1850. It is a work in oil on canvas, measures 86.4 cm × 139.7 cm and is in the Tate Britain in London.

Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1869) was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which was founded at his parents’ house in London. Millais created controversy when his painting, ‘Christ in the House of his Parents’ was first exhibited in 1850. But it brought the previously obscure Pre-Raphaelites to public attention and was a major contributor to the debate about Realism in the arts.

By the late 1850s, Millais was moving away from the Pre-Raphaelite style. His later works were enormously successful, making him one of the wealthiest artists of his day.

His painting ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’ depicts the Holy Family in Saint Joseph’s carpentry workshop. The painting was extremely controversial when it was first exhibited, prompting many negative reviews.

The realistic depiction of a carpentry workshop, especially the dirt and detritus on the floor, down to the details of Saint Joseph’s dirty fingernails, stirred criticism. Charles Dickens accused Millais of portraying the Virgin Mary as an alcoholic who looks “... so hideous in her ugliness that ... she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England.”

Dickens said the young Christ looks like a “hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-haired boy in a night-gown who seems to have received a poke playing in an adjacent gutter.”

Other critics also objected to the portrayal of Christ, one complaining that it was “painful” to see “the youthful Saviour” depicted as “a red-headed Jew boy.” Others still suggested that the characters displayed signs of rickets and other disease associated with slum conditions.

The painting depicts the young Christ assisting Saint Joseph in his workshop. Saint Joseph is making a door, which is laid on his carpentry work-table. Christ has cut his hand on an exposed nail, leading to a sign of the stigmata, prefiguring the crucifixion.

As Saint Anne removes the nail with a pair of pincers, his concerned mother, the Virgin Mary, offers her cheek for a kiss while Saint Joseph examines his wounded hand.

The young Saint John the Baptist is bringing in water to wash the wound, and so prefigures his later baptism of Christ.

An assistant of Saint Joseph, representing potential future Apostles, is watching all that is going on.

In the background we can see many objects that hep to further point up the theological significance of the subject. A ladder, referring to Jacob’s ladder and the ladder used to take Christ down from the cross, is leaning against the back wall. A dove, representing the Holy Spirit rests on it. Other carpentry implements refer to the Holy Trinity.

The sheep in the fold in the background represent Christ’s future followers, who know Christ as the Good Shepherd.

The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy, with a companion piece by Millais’s colleague, William Holman Hunt, ‘A Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Missionary from the persecution of the Druids.’ Because of the controversy, Queen Victoria asked for the painting to be taken to Buckingham Palace so that she could view it in private. We do not know whether she was amused, but Millais said he hoped the painting “would not have a bad effect on her mind.”

The critical reception of the painting brought prompt attention to the Pre-Raphaelite movement and stimulated a debate about the relationship between modernity, realism and mediaevalism in the arts.

John Ruskin supported Millais in letter to the press and in his lecture “Pre-Raphaelitsm,” although he personally disliked the painting. Its use of Symbolic Realism led to a wider movement in which typology was combined with detailed observation.

Tomorrow:The Anxiety of Saint Joseph’ by James Tissot.