El Greco's St. Joseph and the Child Jesus by Mary Elizabeth Podles

A Thousand Words

El Greco's St. Joseph and the Child Jesus

by Mary Elizabeth Podles

El Greco's image of St. Joseph is that of a young and vigorous father protectively holding the child Jesus, while a tumbling vortex of angels descends through a stormy sky. This is a newly minted iconography for Joseph, not seen before in the history of art. It springs primarily from the theologians of the Counter-Reformation. At the end of the Middle Ages, marriage was in an increasingly sorry state. Social and economic changes had pushed the marriage age for men later, while for women, it grew younger. This resulted in a good bit of disaffection all around. Divorce, or rather annulment on complicated grounds of consanguinity, was rife. Families fell apart. The resulting chaos, and the general reluctance to institute drastic reforms, was one of the generally unacknowledged causes of the fracture we call the Reformation.

In response, the Catholic Council of Trent (1545–1563) set in place counter-measures to rectify the marriage laws and also to bolster the spiritual life of the family. St. Joseph, for example, was proposed as a model for fathers, and his image was upgraded from the little old man of Byzantine and medieval art to the athletic young male we see here. The cult of St. Joseph took hold strongly in Spain (it is at this time that the name "José" became popular in Spanish-speaking lands). El Greco's painting was a special commission for the revamping of a chapel within the cathedral in Toledo in 1597.

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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.


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