A Father’s Tenderness


The Child is a very tender image, and St. Joseph expresses very well the devotion and affection he feels toward the Redeemer of the World.”
With these words, in 1677 the Florentine man of letters Francesco Bocchi described the Saint Joseph with the Christ Child
by Guido Reni, at the time in the collection of Marchese Gerini, of which the version in Rimini is a direct descendant.
Faber lignarius, sponsus Mariae, nutritor Domini
[carpenter, Mary’s bridegroom, nourisher of the Lord]. These three appellations synthesize the Church tradition regarding Joseph, “of the House of David,” says Luke in his Gospel, “an upright man” according to Matthew. John barely mentions him; Mark not at all. The apocryphal Gospels are the ones to break the silence about the venerable husband of Mary: The Infancy Gospel of James and above all the History of Joseph the Carpenter
, a Coptic text written in the fourth century and devoted totally to St. Joseph.
The history and figure of Joseph are so completely entwined with that of the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus that it is rare in medieval art to find autonomous representations of the saint; nor are there any relics of him, except his belt which is kept in the Church of Nôtre-Dame at Joinville, transported there by the lord of the manor on his return from the crusade of 1254.
Things changed after the Council of Trent, and Guido Reni was the brilliant interpreter of the new sensibility toward Joseph. Threading one’s way through the numerous versions of the painting made around 1640 by the “divine Guido,” as his contemporaries called him, is not a simple matter. At the moment, three versions are recognized as autograph, joined by an unspecified number of workshop replicas, painted after a model by the master, and finally two other versions, from Guido’s hand, that nonetheless present significant variations from the canvas that once belonged to Marchese Gerini. This is not arid philology: the great Bolognese painter was the first to create this type of image of the saint, and his invention met the success it deserved. The history of Reni’s St. Josephs explains many things about the new sensibility toward the Patron Saint of the Church. In fact, a 17th-century collector commissioned, from the artist, a St. Joseph leaning over the child Jesus as well as a Virgin and Child
in the same loving pose, a sign that Guido’s tender proposal had been worthily accepted. The 18th-century owners of one of these paintings, however, mistakenly identified the elderly man watching over the Child as Simeon who took Jesus into his arms in the temple, so extraneous did the tenderness shown by the old man seem to the idea of the Virgin’s husband that was then current.
But the true meaning of the image coined by Guido Reni is revealed by the two variants that are larger in size than our painting. In these, St. Joseph, bent over in contemplation of the child Jesus, stands out against the background of a splendid landscape with the scene of the flight into Egypt in the distance, showing Mary and the Child riding on the back of a donkey. Just like the Virgin, often represented in a moment of rest during this exhausting journey, Guido imagined that Joseph too might have taken advantage of a calm moment to rest in rapt contemplation of the Child Jesus playing with a piece of fruit. It is true that in Christian symbolism, the pomegranate represents a general reference to the Passion of Christ, but at the same time it is not at all difficult to believe that Joseph gave it to Jesus, like any father playing with his beloved little boy, to distract him from the hardships of their journey.