The art essay

The Dream of Saint Joseph (c. 1665) by Francisco Rizi (1608–1685)

Love in dreams

Dorothy Day would often quote a pithy line from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” In the life of Saint Joseph, to whom Day had a particular devotion, that statement profoundly illuminates the love of God as it manifested itself specifically in his dreams. Artistic expressions of Joseph’s dream became popular when widespread devotion to the saint emerged in the 16th century. This devotion came on the heels of the Council of Trent (1545–1563), which codified acceptable saints for artistic rendering and parameters by which artists should depict those saints. Devotion to Joseph especially grew in Spain, where Teresa of Ávila dedicated her reformed Carmelite convent to the patronage of Joseph (she was known to have visions of the saint throughout her life). Spanish artists, Francisco Rizi being no exception, specifically depicted Joseph as a young man, as the Catholic reformer Joannes Molanus (1533–1585) asserted that only a younger man could aptly take Mary and Jesus on a journey from Bethlehem to Egypt and back to Nazareth. Moreover, the abstinence of a youthful Joseph could be seen as more intentional (and inspirational) than that of an older man.

While other scenes from the infancy narratives in some way involve the entirety of the Holy Family, the dreams of Joseph are particular to him and his role in the story. The chronicle of Joseph’s dreams in the Gospel of Matthew is a direct allusion to the role of dreams in other biblical contexts, most especially the dream-interpreting skills of the saint’s namesake, Joseph, son of Jacob, who was also a model of purity (Gn 39:1-20). Yet the sleeping Joseph also emphasizes how God responds to those in distress while they slumber, such as Adam during the creation of Eve (Gn 2:21-23), Jacob on the run from his brother Esau (Gn 28:10-19), and Peter during his imprisonment and liberation (Acts 12:3-19).

Mary’s role in Joseph’s dream

While liturgical devotion to Saint Joseph on March 19th seems to originate in the medieval period, and later became part of the universal calendar, the feast of the Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary on March 25th goes back to at least the 5th century. The rise in the cult of Saint Joseph is intrinsically connected to the role of Mary in salvation history, and artists have regularly conveyed that relationship. In Rizi’s The Dream of Saint Joseph, Mary appears in the background hovering over Saint Joseph, an image of what he sees in his dream. According to Matthew, an unnamed angel appeared to Saint Joseph in a dream after he discovers that his soon-to-be wife is with child. Rizi’s work infers that Gabriel, who appeared to Mary in the Lucan account, is the same angel who appeared to Joseph in his dream. The angel appears to Joseph holding a lily, much as Gabriel is depicted in many Annunciation scenes approaching Mary with a lily. Interestingly, Rizi also includes the angel holding a lantern, a symbol traditionally identified with the “fourth archangel,” Uriel (which means “light of God”), who is mentioned in both Jewish and Christian apocryphal sources. While it may not be clear which archangel Rizo is depicting, he is clearly asserting that Joseph’s dream is a parallel to Mary’s Annunciation.

Rizi also draws from the Book of Revelation (chapter 12) to render Mary as the “woman clothed with the sun” and “on her head a crown of twelve stars.” The woman is “with child” with a Son who was “destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod.” The Child Jesus within Mary’s “womb” does not appear in a fetal position, but rather in an ecstatic state arrayed with a golden glow suggestive of sovereignty. It is unclear what Rizi has painted at the base of Mary’s figure. The artist has been accused by some critics of being careless in his pieces, although others argue that unintentional strokes such as these indicate an unfinished work.

Devotion to Joseph, husband of Mary

Francisco Rizi came from a family of painters and was highly respected by Spanish royalty, especially Philip IV. He was commissioned to paint many works of devotion in churches throughout Spain. By employing unique symbols of the saint, Rizi unequivocally solidifies the cult of Joseph for public devotion. Most notably, Joseph clasps in his hand a flowering staff. The association of Joseph with the staff originates from the Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal source that records a highly detailed infancy narrative. In the account, a twelve-year-old Mary is in the Temple with the high priest, who desires to present her with a husband. Certain eligible men (“widowers”) arrive at the Temple with staffs in hand. Joseph’s staff, however, blossoms with a dove that hovers over his head—a sign that Joseph was to be the husband of Mary. The story is somewhat reminiscent of Aaron’s staff, which blossomed and “bore ripe almonds” (Nm 17:23). Interestingly, in Rizi’s composition a dove also hovers over Mary’s head (representing the Holy Spirit’s procession within the Trinity), and the glow behind her is almond-shaped (a common artistic expression of Mary’s sanctity). The lily, held by the angel, is also a symbol commonly associated with Joseph. This association originates from Mary, whose empty tomb was, in some traditions, found to be filled with white lilies. Moreover, the vibrant whiteness of the flower has been identified with purity and chastity, particularly the purity of the Virgin. Joseph’s unique relationship with Mary lets us apply the symbol of the lily to him as well. While Joseph most likely desired to divorce Mary quietly because of his perceived failure to protect her from another man’s transgression, the dream of the angel revealing how the Child was conceived upholds his (and Mary’s) vocation to chastity.

The love in dreams that Joseph experiences through the peace and assurance afforded by an angel definitely prepared him for his personal love in action, which at times was “harsh and dreadful.” Yet, his continual response to the Love of God—embodied in his foster Child—makes him an accessible and heroic figure to emulate in the Christian journey.

Father John Gribowich

Ministers with DeSales Media Group, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is currently a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.


The Dream of Saint Joseph (c. 1665), Francisco Rizi (1608–1685), Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Ind. Public domain.