The tenderness that brought Joseph forward

MANY of the Nativity paintings we see at this time of year have a shadowy figure standing in the background, keeping watch while shepherds and wise men press forward to see the baby Jesus. The baby's mother, Mary, is the one either holding him or hovering over the manger. What did the man in the shadows think about all this attention for a little baby? What did he think about the baby himself? There isn't a lot of information about Joseph. What clues would a painter have to go on if he wanted to bring Joseph out of the background and let him hold the baby for a change? We know that Joseph was a ``just man'' - he was a good person, he made his living with his hands as a carpenter and we know that when the child was threatened by the king he left everything and took the baby and his mother to safety in another country.

Giovanni Battista Gaulli, called Baciccio, would have known these things as he prepared to do this painting. But sometime while he was working on this canvas the relationship between Joseph and Jesus became much more real for him, and he made some major changes in the painting to show this new idea.

It is possible to take an X-ray picture of some paintings and see what is painted underneath without spoiling the surface. Sometimes there is a completely different painting underneath, and sometimes it shows how the artist changed his mind. X-rays have been taken of this canvas. Baciccio changed his mind.

His painting ``St. Joseph and the Infant Christ'' started out as an ordinary religious work. Most of the paintings by Baciccio are of religious subjects or are actually part of a church building.

Baciccio worked with Bernini, the great architect, sculptor, and painter, in Rome during the second half of the 1600s. The wonderful modeling of the folds in Joseph's cloak show Bernini's influence. The white cloth floating out under the baby is shaped very much like some of the clouds Baciccio painted on church ceilings to hold pictures of angels and cherubs.

What changed in this painting was not so much the technique as it was the point of view. In the earlier version Joseph sits up, looking out at us and slightly to the side, where he is holding up the infant almost as though he were displaying him. The child reaches over his own head and toward Joseph's. It is a wide-open gesture, more of curiosity than tenderness.

What made Baciccio change the painting? Somehow he must have learned something about father-love. This is no longer a painting showing us Joseph who in turn is showing us the child Jesus. As we see it now it is a painting of a very tender and loving relationship. We are not being ``shown'' anything.

At the moment Baciccio has painted the two, they are not aware of anyone but each other. The carpenter's hands cradle the child. The child's reach up to the soft beard on the face gazing into his own. Because we don't see either face fully, we are shut out a little bit, but this emphasizes the special relationship between them.

The strong lighting coming from the left side of the painting and the deep shadows in the background also set the two of them apart and help us feel their closeness. The figures glow with warm flesh tones and are enveloped in Joseph's orange-brown cloak. Baciccio was a master of color, and here his expertise helps us feel the warmth of love between these two.

When babies are born it's not unusual for most of the attention to focus on the mother and child. Many fathers have found themselves standing in the background. Baciccio's unique perspective on this familiar event lightens some of those shadows for all of us.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.