A Snapshot from the Life of Jesus

On the image chosen for the Christmas 2003 poster of Communion and Liberation: Murillo’s Holy Family with a Little Bird

by Giuseppe Frangi

The painting by the Sevillian artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo is simply a serene family picture, a scene from the daily life that God favored for sending His Son. Nothing is more normal and sacred at the same time
The story of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s life can help us to understand the reasons for this famous masterpiece, now in the Prado in Madrid. He was born in Seville in 1617, the fourteenth son of Gaspar Esteban and Maria Perez Murillo. Orphaned at the age of 10, he was brought up by his older sisters, who recognized his talent and apprenticed him to Juan del Castillo. Murillo married Beatriz Cabrera, a young woman from Seville, and together they too had a large family: nine children, although the terrible plague of 1649 left them with only five.
In short, the experience of family life was a profound one for Murillo. In Murillo, we find an artist extremely faithful to his destiny and vocation. During his life, he painted almost exclusively sacred subjects, which met with enormous success in Seville. He was known, among other things, as the artist of the Immaculate Conception, a subject he painted in twenty different versions.
Let’s look at this Holy Family, painted in 1650, known as “del Parajito” because of the little bird. In keeping with the naturalism of seventeenth-century Spanish art, he recounts a scene from the life of Jesus’ family, immersing it in the reality of his Seville. Murillo’s picture is like a snapshot laden with an air of intimacy, showing the figures surprised in an ordinary hour of the day. Mary, curiously set in the background, is winding yarn from a skein-winder, with a basket full of clothes to be mended at her feet. At the center of the scene is a young Joseph, who has taken a break from his carpenter’s bench to enjoy a moment of play with Jesus. The Child, in turn, is playing with a puppy and a little bird clutched in His hand. It has been said that the bird represents redemption; the apocryphal Infancy Gospels tell of an episode in which, as a child, Jesus molded some birds out of mud and then breathed on them, making them fly.
Certainly, the scene lends itself to many symbolic interpretations, but the heart of this painting lies in the naturalness of the narrative, in this dimension of daily life filled with feeling and affection. It is a completely normal picture of an intimate family group, serene and healthy in terms of the relationships among its members. Murillo’s Holy Family is not a “special type” of family, but seems the perfect visual image of Péguy’s wonderful words from Véronique: “And yet we know, it is truly important that it is precisely family life, so blamed and vituperated…, precisely this that Jesus chose and lived in history during the first thirty years of His existence” (Véronique, Piemme, pp. 114-115).
In the Panorama article for the 25th anniversary of the Holy Father, Fr Giussani spoke of marriage in these words: “In the Pope’s teaching, woman for man and man for woman are the visual, visible aspect of triumph, of the flower that ‘germinated,’ as Dante says in his Hymn to the Virgin: the identity between humanity and faith. Love is man’s greatest value, and therefore the example of the man and the woman is the formula that represents the ideal.” (“Letter to the Holy Father,” Panorama, October 30, 2003, reprinted in Traces, Vol. 5, No. 10, November 2003, p. 49).