The art essay of the month

Saint Joseph and the Christ Child (c. 1600) by El Greco (1541–1614)

“I took for my advocate and lord the glorious Saint Joseph and commended myself earnestly to him,” says Saint Teresa of Ávila (?? 1582) in her autobiography. But she did not think devotion to Saint Joseph was a private grace given to her alone: “If anyone cannot find a master to teach him how to pray, let him take this glorious saint as his master and he will not go astray.”

Saint Joseph emerges

During and after Teresa’s lifetime, public devotion to Saint Joseph experienced its most dramatic period of growth in all of Christian history. Writers, painters, mystics, and Christians of all walks of life found themselves newly drawn to Saint Joseph, fueled in part by the Council of Trent’s emphasis on the Scriptures as the basis for devotion to the saints and on sacred images as a means of encounter with them, and in part by the personal experience of Saint Joseph’s paternal love in the writings of mystics like Teresa. By the turn of the seventeenth century, the Church could keep silent about the “silent saint” no longer.

In the year 1597, the expatriate Greek painter Doménikos Theotokópoulos (known as El Greco) received a commission to paint a chapel dedicated to Saint Joseph in Toledo, Spain, intended for the use of Teresa of Ávila’s Discalced Carmelites. El Greco created memorable images of Saint Martin of Tours, the Virgin and Child, and the Coronation of the Virgin as framing paintings for the altar’s reredos, but the central image that still dominates the altarpiece is a greater-than-life-size image of Saint Joseph. In preparation, El Greco made a complete small-format study of the image (reproduced here), which today can be found tucked away in the sacristy of Toledo’s magnificent cathedral.

Saint Joseph among us

El Greco’s image harnesses the energy of the universal Church’s new devotion to Saint Joseph and makes it breathtakingly particular and concrete. El Greco presents Joseph as a young father with a dark brown beard and hair just beginning to thin, with corded laborer’s muscles apparent in his neck, arms, and legs. One arm reaches down to return Jesus’ embrace and the other holds a crooked staff, marking him as a pilgrim on a journey—or is it a shepherd at home? His bare feet are poised for action, his right foot pressing into the dirt of the path while his left heel lifts in preparation for the step that will take him directly into the viewer’s presence. Down in the deep background is another sign of how close Joseph is to the viewer: the hilltop skyline of Toledo itself forms the setting for the encounter. This is not Saint Joseph as an abstract ideal, or as seen from afar: he is here, a real father whose real love for Jesus comes to be where we are, and invites us to share in it.

Saint Joseph through Jesus’ eyes

Jesus’ bright red garment naturally draws the viewer’s eyes, as does the disarmingly intimate and childlike arm that Jesus stretches up to throw around Joseph’s waist. But it’s Jesus’ eyes that tell us what we’re seeing: turned unexpectedly toward the viewer even though his pose suggests they should be returning Joseph’s gaze, his eyes reveal that we are looking at Saint Joseph from Christ’s perspective.

Amazingly, El Greco manages to convey in a single image both the real human gaze of the boy Jesus and the true divine sight of the Eternal Word. 
El Greco’s characteristically elongated bodies here serve to emphasize Joseph’s height, allowing the viewer to see him towering over Jesus, just as many people’s childhood memories exaggerate their own father’s height and the size of his embrace, however diminutive the real man may have been. At the same time, the viewer sees the heavens revolving around Saint Joseph in a pure burst of celestial sight. Far from being mere observers, the angels physically surround Saint Joseph, circling around his head in gravity-defying whorls while spilling out visible manifestations of his glories: a lily for his chaste virginity, roses for heavenly splendor, the laurel-leaf crown of imperishable glory (cf. 1 Cor 9:25).

Behold your father

Speaking from the Cross, Jesus hands the Virgin Mary to the Church as the universal Mother of the Church and the mother in faith of every individual believer. El Greco’s image has Jesus offer Saint Joseph to the Church and to each Christian in a similar way, but rather than speaking as the triumphant king from the throne of the Cross, he speaks as a humble child, who as the Son of God nonetheless chooses to need the strength, dedication, and tenderness of a ­father on earth. In his own time, El Greco’s image offered a much-needed insight into Saint Joseph as a real father, whose perfect chastity was the wellspring for his paternal charity. In our time of increasing fatherlessness, El Greco offers us an even more fundamental insight: that the father­hood of Saint Joseph is a perpetual witness to the holiness of fatherhood and its place in the life of every Christian, regardless of what the father they have known was like.

A child who has a loving father naturally imagines the whole universe rotating around the solid pillar of his father’s love; in one wild, exhilarating glimpse, El Greco shows this childhood fantasy coming true in the person of Saint Joseph, who receives his fatherhood from the Eternal Son and so lives on earth as the father of the one whom earth and sea and sky adore—and our father as well.

Father Gabriel Toretta, o.p.
Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and doctoral student at the University of Chicago, where he studies the history of the theology of beauty in the Carolingian era.

Saint Joseph and the Christ Child (c. 1600), El Greco (1541–1614), Toledo Cathedral (sacristy), Toledo, Spain. © Bridgeman Images.