​Savoring Spain: A Beautiful Painting Of St. Joseph And The Christ Child Comes To Market

We live in a time in which amateurish assemblages such as this are considered “worthy” of winning major art prizes, while childish nonsense is viewed as a “major” donation to an art museum. So let’s take a moment away from the madness to admire a beautifully painted, rather serene work of art by a great Old Master painter, which is coming up for sale tomorrow evening. While it’s not something that most of us have the space to hang on the wall, I would happily rearrange my entire house around it.

On Thursday Christie’s in London will be auctioning a private collection which, particularly if you love Spanish art as I do, will make your mouth water. The sale includes works by a number of both well-known and unknown Spanish artists, including Pedro Berruguete, Juan de Valdés Leal, and Francisco de Zurbarán, as well as pieces by a number of other European and American artists. Decorative objects in the collection include things like Gothic chests, Persian carpets, Etruscan statuary, and just about everything else you would need to furnish a very well-appointed residence.

For me the highlight of the sale is a magnificent, life-sized painting of “St. Joseph and the Christ Child” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-1682), one of the greatest of all Spanish Old Master painters. In this picture we see St. Joseph holding the young Jesus by the hand, bringing Him forward for us to see. In the background is the base of a square column, while up above golden light pours through thick clouds, which are filled with little angels.

This painting is a perfect example of the Baroque art that was created during the Counter-Reformation, which sought to forge an emotional connection between viewer and subject matter. Murillo has provided a sharp contrast between the weight and solemnity of the two figures standing on terra firma, and the weightless movement of the heavenly figures floating up above. While over time the Baroque became more and more overwrought with gesticulation, ornament, and fussiness, until it eventually turned into the Rococo, here it is very dignified, while still carrying an emotional impact.

Take a moment to step back and notice the palette in this picture, and you’ll realize that the primary color in this piece is gray. Unlike in Gothic or Renaissance art, where colors were usually extremely bright and vivid, this piece is almost monochromatic. Murillo punctuates this by using a mustard gold for St. Joseph’s cloak, and a pale lavender for Jesus’ robe, but even these colors are somewhat toned down. His  artistic choices were entirely in keeping with the more reserved court dress and social etiquette that held sway during the Golden Age of the Spanish Empire, when this painting was created.

The auction estimate on this painting is roughly $4-6 million, which admittedly sounds like quite a lot – well okay, it is quite a lot. However, when you consider that this pointless (if admittedly attractive) dropcloth…er, painting sold for $34 million recently, then the Murillo is really quite a bargain. Plus, no one will accidentally throw it in a corner of the garage.

Three Quick Reminders

1. Today is the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Foster-Father of Jesus. Because it’s a Solemnity, if this was a Friday, my fellow Catholics would be allowed to eat meat. Moreover, if you gave up something for Lent, such as candy, then you’re allowed to have it today, because Solemnities – like Sundays – are not considered to be part of Lent. (We get another one next Wednesday, the Solemnity of the Annunciation.) Of course, most people are probably going to stick to their “give-ups” but there you are.

If I was in Barcelona, today would be a day for eating “canelons de festa” or “feast day cannelloni”.  However, since Catalan-style cannelloni has not really made it big over here yet, and I don’t have the inclination to make canelons myself, I’ll have to come up with something else. Knowing that it’s more likely for the majority of my readers to understand Spanish rather than Catalan, here’s a video in Spanish giving you a quick overview of how to make this superb pasta dish.

2. Today is also your chance to pop along to the Catholic Information Center, should you happen to find yourself in the Nation’s Capital, and hear Randy Boyagoda discussing his new book, “Richard John Neuhaus – A Life in the Public Square”, about the great conservative thinker, writer, and founder of “First Things”. The CIC is located on K Street between 15th and 16th, close to the White House as well as McPherson and Farragut Squares, so very easy to get to. Hope to see many of my DC readers there as, Catholic or not, Father Neuhaus was a hugely important influence on the public life of this country – among those who read and think about things, anyway – for many years.

3. As you make your weekend plans, don’t forget that Saturday night Passiontide with the Dominican Friars will take place at St. Dominic’s Church, located close to the L’Enfant Plaza Metro. I assure you that the magnificence of said church more than makes up for the horror that is starchitect I.M. Pei’s senseless destruction of the neighborhood around it. The evening should be absolutely beautiful, as will the Spring weather – mostly sunny and 63 degrees for the high on Saturday – so no excuses for sitting at home.


Beating the Bethlehem Blues

I’ll freely admit it: I’m one of those people who can get down-in-the-dumps around Christmas.  Now this is not for the reasons which most of us think of, when it comes to the idea of having a “Blue Christmas”.  Instead it arises when I forget to follow St. Joseph on the road to Bethlehem.

My moodiness isn’t the result of being alone.  I’m always with my family on Christmas for at least several days, for one thing; I usually get invited to several parties by my friends and acquaintances in the lead-up to Christmas and then through New Year’s Eve and Epiphany.  While some people are lonely during this time of year, I’m fortunate that I have plenty of opportunities to spend time with others and celebrate.

Nor is there a materialism issue.  Frankly, I would be happy to receive nothing at all on Christmas morning, other than perhaps some Christmas cards from distant old friends.  This year for example, my father had to BEG for a list of possible Christmas gifts they could get me, and all I could come up with were some books and a request for more argyle socks.

Rather, for me Christmas can easily become a time when I look in the mirror and say, “You blew it.”  I look back at a patchwork of successes and failures over the past twelve months, and conclude that I don’t have much to offer the Newborn King.  Another year has gone by, punctuated with great gifts from above, and I have repaid Him by committing stupid errors and making poor decisions.

However this is not what St. Joseph, the man who listened to a voice in his dreams, would have chosen to do: something I needed to remember both from his example and from my own life.  My regular readers may recall a post of mine from last year, What The Day Brings, recounting an occasion when I received a pretty vibrant wake-up call to be thankful and rejoice, rather than being anxious and fretful.  And I had forgotten that lesson, falling back into that annual mumbling of the Bethlehem Blues.

To get out of what I recognized was a voice from below, rather than above, as a man I found it particularly helpful this time around to think about St. Joseph on his way to Bethlehem.  He had no clue exactly how he was supposed to handle all the societal issues surrounding his young wife being pregnant with a child not his own.  He could not know how to travel to Bethlehem so close to her due date without risking her health or that of her unborn Son.  And upon arriving, as it turned out, he could not even find a decent place for them to stay.

This simple carpenter from a Judean backwater, who never utters a single word in the Gospels, chose to follow God’s Will in his life, even when he could not perceive where it was leading him.  He had already made his own plans before his visitation by God’s messenger in a dream.  Yet when his own ideas and plans turned out not to be compatible with what God was calling him to, he changed them.  It was more important to him to seek to do God’s Will, than to do what other people might want or expect him to do.

There are many things which we can bring to the Christ Child to celebrate His birthday.  Yet the best of all is a heart open to following the will of God, in the way that St. Joseph did.  Even when the way to Bethlehem seems rocky, and the path unmarked, such moments of uncertainty allow us the opportunity to renew our commitment to seeking out His Will in our lives.  However unworthy we may be, the best cure for Christmastime blues, or indeed such thoughts at any time, is turning to Him in obedience and faith, as St. Joseph did.  With the hours we have left until Christmas, let’s all try to recommit ourselves to following God in the same way.

Mosaic of the Journey to Bethlehem (1315-1320)  Church of the Holy Spirit, Chora, Turkey

Mosaic of the Journey to Bethlehem (1315-1320)
Church of the Holy Spirit, Chora, Turkey