The vision is nearly perfect. Baby Jesus is swaddled in a manger. Cattle are lowing. Heavenly light streams through an opening in the stable roof as an angel descends into the rustic tableau. Mary reclines near the newborn Christ. And Joseph is getting a little shut-eye.
|“Joseph's Dream in the Stable at Bethlehem”|
Rembrandt van Rijn. 1645.
There are oodles of artistic interpretations of the Holy Nativity and events surrounding the birth of the Christ – each loaded with symbolism, drama and reverence. A fair amount, however, veer away from what most might envision and show Joseph in deep sleep.
Poor Joseph. He might as well be snoring in church. There is a slight stigma that Joseph can’t seem to shake, and it’s due, in part, to paintings like Rembrandt’s “Joseph's Dream in the Stable at Bethlehem.” In defense of the dozer, Joseph is getting some badly-needed divine input. Because he was given so much direction through dreams, Joseph is often depicted as sleeping – even when it seems most inappropriate.
Georges de La Tour. c. 1640.
(Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, France)
It is so easy to take Joseph's sleep out of context that the idea becomes laughable. Orthodox imagery goes light on Joseph. Icons of the Nativity show Joe sitting with a hand on his jaw, as if he has a sore tooth. In reality, he is supporting his sleepy head.
Georges de La Tour takes the sleep-deprived saint and adds the idea that Joseph was older than dirt in his painting, “Joseph’s Dream.” The artist then increases the saint’s age by contrasting it with an excessively-juvenile angel. We can only assume that Joseph’s walker has been stored nearby.
And then there’s the trip to Egypt. Joseph is more than road-weary in Orazio Gentilischi’s “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” – he has crashed and burned. Gentilischi’s painting is uncomfortable on so many levels that we find ourselves gazing at the donkey out of sheer desperation. (Would SOMEBODY please wake up or cover up!)
|“Rest on the Flight into Egypt”|
Orazio Gentilischi. c. 1625.
(Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, UK)
Unfortunately, the sleeping thing has gotten a tad out of hand. Pope Francis, we are told, has a little statue of sleeping Joseph in his Vatican office. There’s no word on whether the rest of the Holy Family is in the pontiff’s office. One may wonder if there is a close connection to Joseph being the patron saint of lost causes. But I digress.
It becomes odd when those little statues are taken out of the Nativity and consequently out of context, then used for all manner of odd rites and prayers and superstition. For those who indulge in the cutsie, little Joseph figurines, I have a few words for you: “WAKE UP! Your Light has come!”