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The Death of Joseph

The Death of Joseph

Friedrich Overbeck (1789-1869). Kunstmuseum. Basel. 1832-1836.

The Death of Saint Joseph

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828). The Monastery of San Joaquín y Santa Ana – Valladolid. 1787.

Johann Friedrich Overbeck

Johann Friedrich Overbeck was born in a family of Protestant pastors. His father was mayor of Lübeck. Overbeck was not destined however to become a theologian. At eighteen he went to Vienna and studied painting at the Academy there. He longed nevertheless for the traditional Christian themes that his family had repeated so many times to him and he admired the noble painting style of the artists from the times before Raphael in Italy, their images of purity and resplendent expression of faith. He wanted to paint religious pictures in an artistic world impregnated by themes of classical antiquity. Therefore he left for Rome in 1810, hoping to find there the rests of a more pious atmosphere. With a few friends, painters also, he settled in the abandoned former Franciscan monastery of San Isidoro. His friends were Peter Cornelius, Wilhelm Schadow and Philip Veit. They all worked on religious themes and tried to revive the art of Pietro Perugino and Pinturicchio, in clear and simple representations. The painters wore their hair long and kept them together with a piece of cloth, so the Romans soon called them somewhat mockingly the ‘Nazarenes’. Johann Friedrich Overbeck converted to Catholicism in 1813. The Nazarene group made several frescoes in Rome and also oil paintings. The ways the artists of the Nazarene movement painted became ultimately a major style of the late nineteenth century, not just in Rome, but from there also in Germany and Austria. All but Overbeck returned to Germany and Austria, to become professors and directors of the main art academies of Vienna, Düsseldorf, Munich and Berlin. Many of the artists received high distinctions and worked for princes and kings. Overbeck however remained in Rome and he died there in 1869.

Several German, Austrian and Swiss notables supported the Nazarenes in Rome. Among them was the German Consul Bartholdy. Bartholdy commissioned them to paint frescoes in his Roman palace. The Nazarenes, among which also Overbeck, painted scenes from the life of Joseph the Egyptian in the Casa Bartholdy and these frescoes were later brought back to Berlin, where they are now in the National Gallery of the town. The name of Joseph remained important for the Nazarenes, since this was their first great and common work. Another supporter was a rich Swiss heiress called Emilie Linder (1797-1867), a painter herself, a lady that remained unmarried but who collected paintings for her house in Basel. She acquired many pictures from the Nazarenes. She also met Johann Friedrich Overbeck in Rome, during one of her stays in the Papal city. The ‘Death of Saint Joseph’ was one of the paintings she bought in Rome and brought to her hometown C3 . Emilie Linder had also been a Protestant converted to Catholicism. Miss Linder gave her collection of paintings to the Kunstmuseum of Basel, and in this museum is still the ‘Death of Joseph’.

Saint Joseph was the patron of the carpenters, and devotion to Joseph became common especially from the seventeenth century on. An apocryphal text, the ‘History of Joseph the carpenter’ is the account of Joseph’s death. In this history, Joseph fears death and he is obsessed with self-reproach. Mary and Jesus comfort him and promise solace and protection in his name to all those who do well while remembering him. In the text Joseph is the feeble, doubting man and Johann Friedrich Overbeck may have read the account and drawn some parallels with his own doubting as an artist.

Johann Friedrich Overbeck painted a much depleted, simple ‘Death of Joseph’. We see three figures: Mary, Jesus and Joseph. Joseph is dying or has just passed away. He lies down, but his upper body is in Jesus’s lap. Jesus blesses Joseph. Mary sits in prayer, on her knees, hands folded, in front of the father and son. The image is equivocal. Jesus is the Son that is not the son. Overbeck may have brought attention again to the difficult theological concept of the Immaculate Conception, of the question of who was the father of Jesus. But father is also he who raises a child, cares for him while it is in need of protection during the vulnerable years of youth and finally offers it the chances of autonomous life. That, Joseph ahs done so that Jesus’s empathy with Joseph is sincere. Such is also the message that the angels give above, the blessings from heaven for Joseph.

The scene is an image of warmth, of loving and caring – now of the son for the father. Johann Friedrich Overbeck indicated this in colours foremost, but also in a few subtle gestures of the figures. Jesus blesses Joseph, but he holds him in his lap to offer the old Joseph the comfort that he, Jesus, received in his youth. Jesus also softly laid a hand on Joseph’s shoulder to, by a touch, show his link with his father and physically also tell Joseph that he is with him. Jesus thus blesses Joseph and gives him his spiritual protection but also the human solace. The figure of Jesus, as shown by Overbeck, thus represents in subtle signs also the dual nature of Jesus. Mary also looks in pity at the man that has given her the same comfort as Jesus. Joseph has sheltered both in the same way. The link therefore is equally between Mary and Jesus. Now they have only eyes for Joseph, not for each other, but their figures are drawn at the same height, joined in the same emotions.

Overbeck painted Mary and Jesus also in almost the same colours. Jesus wears a grey-blue robe and a grey-red cloak. Mary wears a greyish green to blue cloak but parts of her red robe, lined with the same delicate golden patterns as on Jesus’s cloak, can be seen at her neck and sleeves. Mary and Jesus form almost the same and symmetric areas of colours. They both incline their head towards the lower middle, towards Joseph and therefore also lead and keep the viewer’s attention on the figure of Joseph. Joseph’s robe is of a colour that joins the hues of Jesus’s robe and Mary’s cloak but Overbeck gave Joseph a broken white cloak, which reminds already of the white linen in which Joseph’s body will be enveloped when it will be laid in the tomb.

Johann Friedrich Overbeck made a composition in his ‘Death of Joseph’ that is rigid, simple and very obvious. He emphasised the vertical lines in Mary and Jesus. In doing so he makes the viewer remember ancient gothic pictures. In these pictures also landscape was frugal, whereas one finds often an open window behind the scene of the main figures. Overbeck likewise situated the ‘Death of Joseph’ in a room and the landscape seen through the open window remained equally simple. We see only the long, slowly sloping rims of granite hills. The horizontal lines of the window sill, as well as the horizontal lines of Joseph’s body are the horizontal links between Mary and Jesus, so that the structure of the composition is very rigid. It thus inspires rest, perpetuity, equilibrium in the viewer. Other long horizontal lines are in the very lowest part of the painting, where we see the lining of a thin cloth laid on the ground. This cloth is of the same colour as Mary’s cloak and Jesus’s robe and it blends with the background, with the dark hues of the walls. Overbeck painted the scene before the open window and the dawn breaks, since a bleak light appears above the hills. But light in the painting seems to come from the lower left, to fall more clearly on Joseph. Still, the light remains discreet and only serves to shape the volumes of the figures. This also was a Gothic and Renaissance way of representation, unlike the Baroque’s full contrasts between light and shadows.

Finally, Overbeck painted five little angels above, explaining the scene to the viewer. Here Overbeck used lighter colours, but the painting remains overall in the same tone and intensity of hues. Overbeck avoided colours of high intensity. All colours contain much grey. The colours should have been warm: red, deep blue, broken white to grey. Overbeck painted them all rather greyish or brownish in subdued intensity, and this indicated the departure of colour in death. Overbeck used colour to support the mood, to support the colourless face of Joseph as it enters death. He painted his various colour areas in one hue, only modulated by chiaroscuro, as early Renaissance fresco painters would have done.

Johann Friedrich Overbeck made thus a fine painting that does not deliver an immediate, strong impression on the viewer. Overbeck avoided bringing over powerful emotions to the viewer. The picture was quite in line with Overbeck’s views of religion. He addressed religion in a sincere, individualistic, humble way, like he believed the attitude of a true Christian should be. In Baroque Rome, this was a very Protestant view, even if Overbeck was now a Catholic. His style of composition and his use of colours are flawless and therefore a little weak. But Overbeck dared to represent a subject that not so many artists dared to touch: the equivocal relationship of father to son between Jesus and Joseph, and that also was a Protestant interrogation. Very probably however, there was no equivocal feeling in the matter for Overbeck, no issue in the representation of the scene. For Johann Friedrich Overbeck Jesus was the Son of God but Jesus could also lovingly care for his human, adopted father Joseph. Overbeck defied anybody who might think otherwise; with the innocence of his true sincerity.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes

The second painting we present of the death of Joseph is a picture of Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. Jesus is present at the deathbed of Joseph. This is a tender scene, less formal than the paintings of Joseph of Anton Raphael Mengs and more solemn than the George de La Tour picture with the figure of Joseph. Joseph is dressed in a long yellow or golden robe, which continues, in the golden cloth on the bed. It is a very human scene with Mary pleading for her husband and Jesus tenderly touching the hands of Joseph as if to lead him into paradise. A shaft of light falling from the left upper corner suggests the heavenly grace on Joseph. In Goya’s picture the horizontal and vertical lines are prominent, just like in Overbeck’s view. The bed and Joseph are horizontal; Mary and Christ are standing. Thus contrast life and death. The same contrast between life and death is perceived in the feeble, open-mouthed, pitifully dying Joseph and the youthful figures of Jesus and even of Mary. The colours are simple and also contrasting blue, yellow, and grey.

Goya rarely made religious scenes though he painted such scenes early as well as late in life. This painting was made in his mature years; Goya was forty-one, and he worked mostly on commissions from the court. The picture was made for the monastery of Santa Ana de Valladolid and commissioned by the Bourbon King Charles IV of Spain. The Bernardines of this monastery were devoted to the cult of the Holy Family, of which Joseph was part. Goya made a picture for the church of the court architect Sabatini. The painting’s structure such as the falling light matched its placing in the building.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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