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The Dream of Joseph

Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779). The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art – Sarasota (Florida). 1773.

Saint Joseph, Carpenter

Georges de La Tour (1593-1652). Musée du Louvre – Paris. Around 1640.


Joseph is the forgotten man of the Holy family. He is described in very discreet words in the Gospels. Luke almost ignores Joseph so that Luke’s Gospel seems to have been written from out of the view of Mary. The Gospel of Mark passes directly to the adult, public life of Jesus, and does not even mention Joseph. Matthew takes on more Joseph’s view and makes him the central character in the birth and infancy of Jesus. Besides the principal source of the Gospel of Matthew, apocryphal narratives relate of Joseph. The ‘Protevangelium of James’ of the second century and more so the ‘History of Joseph the Carpenter’ of the fourth century present him very differently of Matthew’s account. Joseph would have been a widower with children, and he would already have been old when he became betrothed to Mary. He might have lived over a hundred years. How Joseph died is in fact unknown, but his death may have come before Jesus’s public live began since Joseph never appears in one of the miracle scenes or in other events of the Gospels except the Nativity. Maybe due to the influences of the apocryphal writings however, Joseph is usually represented as an older man.

The figure of Joseph was discovered late in the art of painting. Pictures of Joseph are very rare in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. The reason for this is probably that the church was at unease with the story of Joseph. What had happened to him was ambiguous. The church did not approve of marriage ceremonies in which the bride was pregnant, nor did it approve of marriages where the bride came in with children at her hand. Painters avoided the subject for their most prominent altarpieces. And of course, pictures were to teach the glory of God and of Jesus’s life with the glorious role of Mary stressed, so that Joseph could remain in the background. Only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the painters handled their themes more freely and they were in quest for new religious subjects. Saint Joseph was rediscovered as a means and sign of audacious innovation.

Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they came to live together she was found to be with child G38 . Her husband Joseph being an upright man and wanting to spare her disgrace decided to divorce her informally. But when he had made up his mind to do so, an angel appeared to him in a dream and said: ‘Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins’. When Joseph woke up he did what the angel had told him to doG 38 .

The dreams of Joseph are important in the Gospel of Matthew. When the Magi had left after Jesus’s birth, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. This time the angel said: ‘Get up, take the child and his mother with you and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child an do away with him’. So, Joseph took his family and left for Egypt.

After Herod’s death, an angel appeared suddenly again in a dream to Joseph. Now the angel told: ‘Get up, take the child and his mother with you and go back to the land of Israel, for those who wanted to kill the child are dead’.

Still later, and once more in a dream, Joseph was warned not to go to Judaea where ruled Archelaus who had succeeded his father Herod, but to withdraw to the region of Galilee. There they settled in a town called Nazareth.


Anton Raphael Mengs has probably painted the second dream of Joseph. It is a masterpiece of a mixture of Baroque art and classical, academic representation. Joseph is sleeping in a chair. He is a tired man with a thick beard and the many riddles in his face show what a hard-working man he was. Light falls from the left on his face, emphasising the traits of the labourer, and his solidity. Solidity is also the impression we receive of the rest of Joseph’s body with the muscular hands and arms that catch the light. The angel stands as a beautiful youth behind Joseph. With one hand the angel of the Lord pleads to Joseph, with the other outstretched arm the angel points to Egypt. The painting’s structure is based on the diagonal going from the right lower corner to the upper left. Joseph is represented in the triangle of the left, which forms a dark mass to emphasise Joseph’s tiredness and sleep. Joseph is shown in a very realistic way, the angel is idealised. On Joseph light and dark shadows contrast, but not so on the angel. The right upper corner is painted in an all-pervading light for here stands the angel and according to the tradition that Mengs honoured in his painting, the angel represents the Heavens, the light. Thus Mengs introduces a contrast between dark earth (Joseph) and the light of God (the angel). Yet, Joseph also is a saintly man so Mengs had him clad in a robe, which is yellow, turned into a golden, lyrical stream around the man.

Anton Raphael Mengs made this picture late in his life. It was probably painted for the earl of Cowper in 1773S1. Mengs was born in Aussig, a little town of Czechia in 1728. He was taught how to draw and paint by his father, who was a miniaturist and who became a director of the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden. Mengs first painted at the court of Saxony in Dresden, but in the 1750’s returned to Rome where he had studied before. He was promoted to Professor at the Academia Capitolina in Rome and had a studio in the Palazzo Barberini where he was surrounded by a flock of admiring students. Mengs worked with the archaeologist Joachim Winckelman. The men were in search of rules of universal art. Mengs proned a return to the clarity and simplicity of ancient Greek and Roman art and thus he was one of the founders of neo-classicism.

Mengs spent most of his career in Rome where he became a leading painter of classical revival. He was considered the greatest living painter of Europe and he certainly thought so of himself too for he lived in great pomposity. Mengs was a great defender of the National Art Academies to French example, and he had a prominent place in the establishment of these in the eighteenth century. His many pupils reached status of prominence in these academies: in Copenhagen, Vienna, Stuttgart, Turin and Dresden G13 . In 1761 Mengs was called to the court of Madrid by the Bourbon king Charles III and the same monarch paid him a huge pension in 1777 to return to Rome to continue his studies in art theory. Mengs exercised an almost messianic authority at the Spanish court G13 . His authority and academicy in the rules of the art of painting resulted in rigidity and coldness in his works. His ‘Joseph’s dream’ is in this perspective one of his better pictures.

De La Tour

The idea of Joseph as a working man is also to be found in the astonishing painting ‘Saint Joseph Carpenter’ of George de La Tour. George de La Tour was a very individual painter who worked outside the mainstreams of art, far from Paris, in his native Lorraine. Like in the more than hundred years later painting of Mengs, de La Tour emphasises the play of light and dark. La Tour does this even much more so than Mengs, at the risk of not being able to show many details of the scene. The candlelight dramatically lights up the face of Jesus. This is in the same sense as the light used in the painting by Mengs, where also the composition with Joseph to the left and the angel to the right matches de La Tour’s vision. The light of the candle in de La Tour’s scene is so intense on Jesus, as also to eliminate all shadows on him and to make his skin translucent. This is particularly strongly represented in the hands of Jesus, a hint that Jesus might be indeed more spirit than human. The contrast of light and shadows does play fully on Joseph however.

Ever since Caravaggio, painters had discovered the many effects of light on objects and the enhancement in drama that the contrasts between light and dark could bring in a picture. The ultimate difficulty for an artist was to show all the shades of light coming from a point source like from a single candle. Light then threw shadows in a very intricate way on objects, and the effect was very difficult to represent to reality. Showing an entire scene as lit by one candle was thus a tour de force that only the very best painters, those who had the best eye and the truest memory could handle. George de La Tour was such a master painter.

Joseph is represented in the action of his work as a carpenter, and here also Joseph is the elder working man. He has a long beard, strong legs and feet and muscular forearms which are not so strongly prominent as with Mengs. De La Tour’s emphasis is not on the solid, muscular body of Joseph however, but on his effort of turning in the wood. Particularly striking in this picture is the composition, which brings the heads of Joseph and of Jesus together in the complicity of a daily task. The scene is very vivid, realised mostly just by the direct look of Joseph to Jesus and the light of the candle. This also underscores a saying of the Gospels, since Jesus told in a preaching: ‘I am the Light of the World’.

It is remarkable how paintings of Joseph were mainly made by such strong individual painters as the two we have chosen here: Anton Raphael Mengs and George de La Tour. The pictures of Joseph are however experiences on the road to humanisation of religious themes. Whereas the Catholic Church stressed Jesus and Mary, painters were interested in the human aspect of the Gospels. The stories of the Gospels were drawn closer to ordinary man. To picture Joseph was a challenge to tradition. Painters showed their interest in what was behind the Gospels, in the true human side of the figures. The figure of Joseph as the forgotten man of the Holy Scriptures intrigued. It would have been impossible in earlier centuries to revive Joseph, but now artists could interest even the clergy in the man Joseph.

Other paintings:

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