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A ‘hidden’ Joseph in an early masterpiece

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"The man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence," who yet "played an incomparable role in the history of salvation" — these are the words Pope Francis used to describe St. Joseph when he proclaimed a year dedicated to the saint, a patron of the Universal Church.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, open again to the public for free with timed admission passes, has among its Old Master paintings many that illustrate the unique heroism of the spouse of the Blessed Virgin. Finding them is a kind of sacred scavenger hunt, for most of these pictures do not even have his name in their title.

One gem that is particularly apt for the Year of St. Joseph is the "Annunciation and Expulsion of Adam and Eve" by the Sienese artist Giovanni di Paolo, dating around 1440-45 A.D. Di Paolo was a consummate storyteller, prolific crafter of altarpieces and illustrator of manuscripts, including the "Divine Comedy" by Dante.

The Annunciation was one of the most oft-depicted events from the Bible. As recounted in Luke 1:26-38, the archangel Gabriel visits the young virgin Mary in Nazareth and tells her she is chosen to be the mother of the Savior. Where this occurred, Luke does not say.

Giovanni di Paolo chose to set the scene in a loggia with a view into a sequence of internal rooms joined by a tiled floor. The space includes a narrow hall toward a nuptial chamber, indicative of Mary’s virginity. Typical for Sienese artists of the time, the painter gives the impression of depth but does not follow any rules of mathematical perspective. Impossibly, we see both the receding floor from above and the decorative canopy from below.

Mary, seated on a carved stone bench, crosses her arms and holds her hands open toward the sky in a receptive gesture. The archangel Gabriel strides confidently into the room, arms folded. In the upper left corner, God the Father — who has dispatched Gabriel — sweeps into the scene casting a heavenly glow toward the two figures.

Directly below the divine apparition, another angel expels a naked Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden that surrounds them with fruit, flowers and cavorting rabbits. Mary is the "new Eve," whose obedience to the divine command will make human redemption possible, and the fertile garden reminds us that the Annunciation occurs in spring.

Following the diagonal from upper left to lower right, we come at last to our "hidden" Joseph. The betrothed husband of the Virgin Mary rarely appears in Annunciation pictures. In the National Gallery’s panel, Joseph warms his hands in front of a fire. The hood over the fireplace evokes the interior furnishings of a well-to-do Sienese residence of his day. To underscore that Joseph had nothing to do with the conception of Jesus, the room is completely separate from Mary’s quarters.

Thus, the pair of the disobedient Adam and Eve is here countered by the obedient couple, Mary and Joseph.

What is the meaning of the details in the depiction of Joseph? Joseph will act as the guardian of the unborn child in the future. The difference in space and time is evoked: the warming of his hands shows that the birth will take place in winter, when Joseph gets involved. The smoke rising to the sky from the fireplace also recalls God’s pleased acceptance of sacrifices in the Hebrew Scriptures (Lv 1:13).

The three scenes help make explicit the connection between the Fall and God's promise of salvation, fulfilled at the moment of the Annunciation, when, as Dante wrote in Canto X of Purgatory, the obedient Mary "turned the key" that opened the door to redemption.

The little panel is the first of five, now scattered to museums around the United States and Europe, that once made up the predella, or band of narrative scenes at the base of an altarpiece dismantled more than 200 years ago. The central scene was a Crucifixion, while the other four depicted episodes from Christ’s early life. St. Joseph plays a prominent role in each one. In the Nativity, Joseph sleeps, receiving the angelic message that will warn him to flee to Egypt. In the Adoration of the Magi, the foster father hovers near the Virgin and Child as they receive the gifts. In the Presentation in the Temple, Joseph brings the two turtle doves offered in lieu of a sacrificial lamb.

One can surmise that the religious order who owned this altarpiece held the tender, obedient foster father of Jesus in great respect. A good guess would be that they were Franciscans, since the Sienese Franciscan preacher and contemporary of the artist, St. Bernardino, was the major Italian promoter of St. Joseph in the 1400s.

Hamerman writes from Reston. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021