The art essay

The Dream of Saint Joseph by Luca Giordano (1635-1705)

In the opening chapter of the Gospel of Saint Matthew, we are told how the Birth of Jesus came about. When Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph, unwilling to bring disgrace to Mary publicly, had decided to divorce her quietly. At this dramatic turning point, Joseph is visited by an angel in what must have been an unforgettable dream. Soon after Joseph heard the angelic “annunciation”, he became, with Mary, the first guardian of the mystery of the Incarnation. To understand and fulfill his vocation this humble carpenter relied on the guidance of angels, including the guardian angels, whose feast is celebrated each October. Few artists have captured the drama of Saint Joseph’s unique vocation as Luca Giordano does in The Dream of Saint Joseph. Completed toward the end of his life while he painted for King Carlos II of Spain, the master Neapolitan fresco painter draws us close to the mystery of the Incarnation through a dream of the humble carpenter entrusted with naming Jesus, and providing for and protecting the Son of God and his Mother, Mary.


Two “annunciations” of one mystery

Giordano places Mary and Joseph side by side in his composition, evoking visually the parallel “annunciations” : to Joseph in Matthew’s text, and to Mary in Luke’s. Between them, at the center of the composition, is a vase of white and pink roses, symbolic of Mary’s virginal Motherhood. A gentle calm pervades the ordinary interior setting in which Mary and Joseph sit on either sides of the low wall that divides their domestic scene in half. Yet something quite extraordinary is taking place here. It is nothing less than a revelation of the Blessed Trinity, unfolding in the presence of the two creatures, Mary and Joseph, who are being entrusted with the Son of God as he enters the world. On the left, Mary sits with hands joined in prayer as cherubs float above. One can almost hear the angelic choir sing those familiar Marian hymns of praise that have echoed in the Church over the centuries. In humility, Mary inclines her head to the sacred page opened on her lap. God’s Word is close to Mary, in her heart and in her womb. Her entire life has prepared for, pondered, and given birth to the Word among us. So Mary teaches the Church how to pray, to hear God’s Word, to keep it always close to mind and heart, and to live by its saving power. Above her haloed head, God the Father appears in benevolent majesty. The Holy Spirit, in the form of a radiant dove proceeding from the Father, hovers over the Mother of God. Invisible yet present in the blessed body of Mary is Jesus, the second divine Person of the Blessed Trinity.


Joseph’s fear turns to faith

While betrothed to Joseph, Mary heard the Archangel Gabriel’s annunciation that the holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God (Lk 1:35). Mary responds with a Fiat, a Yes, spoken from the wellspring of her deep faith in God’s loving plan. But how will Joseph respond to the wonder of Mary’s astonishing Motherhood ? Seated at a sturdy desk in his carpenter’s workshop, the older, bearded Joseph slumbers with one hand supporting his haloed head. Above him a muscular, winged angel, descending in a cloud of golden light, is ready to deliver a heavenly message. Giordano gives us a visual reminder that the angels, too, are evangelizers who proclaim the Good News of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection. These messengers are not of this world, and the message proclaimed is Christ, who is the center of the invisible angelic world devoted to proclaiming God’s saving plan. The contrast of radiant light and deep shadow in perfect chiaroscuro, together with graceful forms, pale colors, and swirling movement, marked Giordano’s mature works, setting the stage for the emergence of a genuine rococo style. In this masterpiece, Giordano’s brush serves the Word of God by opening a visual door into the mystery of the Incarnation.


The home of the Holy Family

Radiant warm light bathes this interior scene, inviting the viewer into the home of the Holy Family, cradle of divine life and sanctuary of divine love. Even as the ethereal sight evokes awe and wonder at the unfolding mystery, the artist includes several reminders of simple domestic life, such as a crouching cat at the lower left, and scattered saws, wood blocks, and various tools of the carpenter’strade. Seated among his carpenter tools scattered on the floor, Joseph invites us to recognize the invisible yet abiding presence of Christ in the ordinary and routine circumstances of family life and daily work. The Gospels offer no record of the spoken words of Joseph. He was a true contemplative. Yet his silence has a kind of distinct eloquence, captured vividly by Giordano’s artistic imagination. No words are needed from Joseph, for his actions speak louder than words. In obedience to the angel’s message, Joseph does God’s will, taking his wife Mary into his home. In doing so, he gives a home to the Son of God ; gives him the name Jesus, which means God saves ; and embraces quietly and joyfully his vocation to provide for and guard the Redeemer of the world. Joseph’s obedience of faith, given humbly and silently, speaks eloquently in our world of noisy distractions, self-asserting opinions, and endless self-promotion. In the home of Nazareth, as painted by Luca Giordano, the faith of Joseph meets the faith of Mary. This gentle contemplative, whose vocation and life unfolded in intimate closeness to Jesus, invites us to imitate the fruitful example of his humble, quiet faith.

 Jem Sullivan

Writer on art, catechesis, and the New Evangelization


The Dream of Saint Joseph (c.1700), Luca Giordano (1635-1705). Indianapolis Museum of Art, Ind., USA

© Bridgeman Images