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Odilon Redon (1840–1916), that king of imaginary worlds, refused to be classified as a spiritualist painter, much less a Christian painter, although Christ and the Gospel occupied a central place among his favorite themes. Although non-practicing and wary of the Catholic Church, deep down, he was not without faith, and he thought that the spiritual element of a painting does not come from the painter but is a dimension inherent in reality. For him, the artist’s mission is precisely to make the viewer see this invisible dimension of real things.
The depiction of the Virgin Mary that you can contemplate on the cover of this issue of Magnificat can be interpreted not only as a Mother at the foot of the cross but also as a Virgin of the Annunciation. Because of its unique story, it should be viewed as a fundamentally mystical work of art. When the painter died, it was found on his easel, a work in progress. It is therefore legitimate to see it also as an overwhelming pictorial expression of the painter’s last prayer before commending his soul into the Father’s hands:
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me, a poor sinner,now, yes now, at the hour of my death….
Surrounded by a mysterious, cloud-like halo painted in the colors of the blood and water that gushed from the pierced Heart of the One who definitively defeated death for all time, the Mother of God stands until the end of the world at the foot of the cross of all those in their final agony. She is always there when the “now” of the hour of our death arrives. Her eyes closed, she holds in her right hand the Book of Scripture which is perfectly fulfilled by the Incarnation of the Son of God in her womb—a fullness which moreover reveals the supernatural reason that every human being has for living and dying. This hand holding the Book is placed on her heart, signifying that, precisely in her heart, united with the Heart of God her Son, Mary is the Mother of our Hope and the Gate of Heaven. And so she treasures and guards the destiny of each one of her dear children at the most tragic moment of their great passage.
And we, poor sinners, who throughout our life have recited each day by the decade: “Pray for us now and at the hour of our death,” how could we doubt that the Mother of God and our Mother will indeed be present and active at our bedside, when the hour of our passage from this world to our Father has come? In his book The Glories of Mary, Saint Alphonsus Liguori relates this anecdote: “Saint John of God, finding that he was soon to die, waited for Mary’s visit: he loved this kind Mother so much! Seeing that she did not appear, he was saddened, and perhaps complained about it. When the moment had arrived, the Mother of God manifested herself to him, and, as if to rebuke him gently for his lack of confidence, she spoke to him these words which are so comforting for the servants of Mary: ‘It is not my custom to abandon at an hour like this those who have followed me.’” Poignantly, the final painting of Odilon Redon testifies that neither does the Mother of God abandon at the hour of death those children of hers who throughout their life have not followed her.
So that the death of everyone, even the most hardened sinners, may be a victory over death, “for the Father is not willing that any of his children should be lost” (see Mt 18:14), we might adapt slightly the formula of our prayer from time to time:
Holy Mary, Mother of God,pray for all the sinners who never pray to you,now and at the hour of their death. Amen.
Virgin (1916), Odilon Redon (1840–1916), Museum of Fine Arts, Bordeaux (France). © Mairie de Bordeaux, musée des Beaux-Arts, photo L. Gauthier.
Prayer and work were linked closely in the home of Nazareth, built and sustained by the manual labor of Joseph, husband of Mary and foster-father of Jesus. Work was a form of prayer, as the work of Joseph’s hands provided for the earthly needs of the Holy Family. In his evocative painting titled The Childhood of Christ, the 17th-century Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst offers a visual catechesis on the dignity and sanctity of work, as visible in the childhood home of Jesus. The artist invites us into the inner recesses of the home of Jesus in Nazareth where the daily, humble work of Joseph the carpenter was sanctified by the presence of the child Jesus and transformed by the light of faith, hope, and love.
Saint Joseph—man with a father’s heart
In his apostolic letter With a Father’s Heart, written for the Year of Saint Joseph, Pope Francis draws attention to several virtues of the foster-father of Jesus. Among these is the “creative courage” of Saint Joseph that filled the ordinary, everyday life of the Holy Family with extraordinary moments of God’s grace and providential care.
Joseph loved Jesus with “a father’s heart.” Jesus saw the face of God’s tender love in Joseph’s fatherly care. As Pope Francis notes, “Joseph saw Jesus grow daily in wisdom and in years and in divine and human favor (Lk 2:52). As the Lord had done with Israel, so Joseph did with Jesus: he taught him to walk, taking him by the hand; he was for him like a father who raises an infant to his cheeks, bending down to him and feeding him (cf. Hos 11:3-4).”
Joseph also taught Jesus to work with his hands as they built, from natural elements and tools of wood and metal, the craft of a carpenter’s trade. It would be at the carpenter’s bench of Joseph that Jesus sanctified all work as a participation in his heavenly Father’s ongoing creative and sanctifying work in the world.
Two human beings, Mary and Joseph, lived in closest proximity to the Son of God in his Incarnation, birth, and childhood. For God entrusted the care of his divine son Jesus, during the hidden years of his childhood, to the loving care of Mary and Joseph. With his hands, Joseph built the home and earned the livelihood that provided for the practical needs of the young Jesus and Mary. And with his virtues, Joseph crafted out of his life a masterpiece for God, radiant with faith, creative courage, and love in action.
The light of faith
Gerrit van Honthorst, a leading portrait painter of the Dutch Golden Age, was known for his scenes of communal life illuminated with ethereal light, often radiating from a single candle in the composition. As a young painter he traveled to Rome and was influenced profoundly by the work of Caravaggio, the master Italian Baroque painter. The Dutch artist’s characteristic style relied on Caravaggio’s technique of chiaroscuro, the sharp contrast of radiant light and deep shadow, to create an evocative and otherworldly effect.
In this early 17th-century masterpiece, we see the close relationship of the child Jesus and Joseph centered around the work of the carpenter of Nazareth. Set in the intimate room of his carpenter’s workshop, we see a haloed, bearded, elderly Joseph with wrinkled brow and weary eyes fixed on the carving tool in his left hand as he prepares to drop a hammer held in his right hand. A large nail on the table evokes the instruments of Jesus’ future death on the cross. Joseph works diligently in the presence of Jesus, who leans on the table over his right arm while holding in his left hand a lit candle that illumines his divine face and reflects onto the face, hands, and work of Joseph. In this quiet scene, one can almost see the candlelight flicker in the unspoken tenderness of the silent exchange shared by this father and son.
Warm golden light radiates from the faces of Jesus and Joseph against the dark, shadowy interior, where two angelic figures appear to float. The genius of Honthorst’s brush is his use of light, both artistically and theologically. The lit candle held aloft by the young Jesus sheds light on the composition and points to his divine mission as the light of the world. Jesus, clothed in a bright red robe that evokes his future sacrifice on the cross, sanctifies with his radiant face and blesses with dignity Joseph’s humble work that supplied the temporal needs of the Holy Family.
The dignity and sanctity of work
In 1955, Pope Pius XII added the feast of Saint Joseph the Worker to the first day of May in the Church’s calendar to highlight the Church’s esteem for workers. Intended originally to correspond to secular International Workers’ Day or “May Day” observances, the Church’s feast grounds the dignity of work in God’s creative work. The feast affirms that work is sacred as it is a privileged way in which we participate in God’s ongoing creative work in the world.
We can imagine, as the painter Honthorst visualizes, that Joseph contemplated daily the face of Jesus in the home of Nazareth. His holiness consisted in becoming a living reflection of the face of God revealed in Jesus through humble work in service of the Holy Family. Joseph’s virtues highlight those ordinary works of loving service in the routine moments of our day that speak louder than the flood of words that fill our inboxes, the airwaves, and digital spaces around us.
The virtues of Saint Joseph the Worker remind us to speak the language of love through the work of our hands so as to reflect God’s mercy and compassion to a world in need. On this path we become living reflections of the face of Jesus Christ in our daily striving for holiness.
Author and teacher of catechetics, School of Theology and Religious Studies, The Catholic University of America.
The Childhood of Christ (c. 1620), Gerrit van Honthorst (1590–1656), Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia. © Bridgeman Images.