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Rembrandt’s Dream of Saint Joseph

An angel of the Lord to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.

Rembrandt Van Rijn, the extraordinary Dutch Master, was both a painter and etcher. After a quick unsatisfactory trip to University at 14, he began an apprenticeship in art…the rest is, as they say, history. Early in his career he found success and always was able to work as an artist. He did end his life in poverty, but that was due to a lack of money management, not a lack of work.

Creating art over 46 years, it is not surprising that his style changed many times. The work we are looking at today was painted between 1650-1655, when he was in his 50’s. During this time Rembrandt’s style was marked by rich colors and pronounced brush strokes. Rembrandt began to distance himself, not just from his earlier work, but from his contemporaries.  Rembrandt’s unique style was based in his use of light, often used to bring out the emotional state of his subjects.  Additionally, there is little shine to the paint’s surface and the paint itself was applied in layers thick enough to add texture to the painting.

The imagery in this painting would have been familiar to Rembrandt’s audience. The nativity cycle (or stories that were painted around Christ birth) included several that take place after the birth of Christ. As recorded in the gospel of Matthew wise men arrived from the east, and they went to see King Herod. The stars had told them a great king had been born and they had come to worship him. This was not welcome news to Herod, who immediately began to plot the child’s death. But Joseph was warned in a dream to take the child and flee to Egypt.

This echoes the story of Joseph in the Old Testament who was also a dreamer, was taken to Egypt, and who rescued not just the people of Israel, but much of the known world from a great famine. So, the Old Testament Joseph is a forerunner of the coming Messiah and events in his life echo events in St. Joseph’s and Jesus life.

Some of the similarities are easily seen, dreams, Egypt, and salvation, but there are similarities between the two men that go deeper. In each story, the two Joseph’s must have faith, they must believe that the dreams they have are messages from God. Then, they must act in obedience. In each case there were difficulties to be overcome, sacrifices to be made, and the good of others given priority.

St. Joseph has been called the saint of hidden things. This is because his role, as the earthly father of Jesus, was that of protector and guide during the years Jesus was growing up. We know very little of those years, they are the hidden years. Joseph’s role is without glory and honor. Just looking at nativity art we see that Mary is given both glory and honor for her obedience and suffering, but Joseph was obedient as well, but he is also hidden in many ways. We know very little about him, and even in the extra-Biblical books there are few stories.

Rembrandt was fascinated with the internal lives of his subjects. Trying to imagine the internal life of Joseph must have intrigued him. He believed that a person’s appearance gave clues to their internal life and that he could paint in ways that would reveal the soul. So in this painting we have Rembrandt’s vision of Joseph.

We know that Joseph is asleep in this painting, yet, he appears to be in prayer. His head is bowed, his hands are clasped, and his wrinkled brow and countenance make him look weary. Sitting upright, he doesn’t appear to be in a comfortable position for sleep. Mary by contrast, wrapped in her voluminous blue cloak is reclined back onto the hay, and Joseph. He is there supporting, protecting her.

Knowing the story, we know that Joseph, despite his weariness will load up his small family and flee to Egypt, arriving as a refugee without work, family, or connections. Defying King Herod at great personal risk he seeks to save the baby who isn’t his. We know that it is a good thing Joseph was faithful and obedient because King Herod in anger, desperate to eliminate the child who might claim his throne, ordered every child under the age of 2 in Bethlehem killed. The massacre of the innocents, a horrific event is another popular art subject.

In this work the composition is developed on a strong diagonal running from the illuminated angel down to Mary’s feet. Our eye naturally starts at the angel. Not only is the angel the brightest part of the painting, the angel seems to be the source of light. Rembrandt’s angel is very human, gently tapping Joseph’s shoulder as if he’s not only giving a message, but waking him up so that Joseph and Mary can make their escape. The angel appears to be coming out of a cloud, half in the celestial realm, and half in the earthly. The donkey and oxen lay in the deep shadows in the back of the barn.

I chose this painting because of Joseph, his weariness made me consider a bit more about this Nativity story when viewed from his perspective. My focus on Joseph delayed my noticing…where is the baby. Given the timing of the story, Joseph has this dream after the birth of Jesus.

In every work we have looked at so far, the baby Jesus is front and center. I wondered if we were to assume the baby was wrapped in Mary’s cloak, unseen by us. Perhaps that is the intention. As I enlarged various sections seeking for the baby I did find one area that could possibly be the baby, maybe less obvious because of darkening varnish. Older paintings that were varnished darken over time, often significantly. I’m curious what any of you think, do you see a baby? I think I might on the far right, level with perhaps Mary’s shoulder. At the very least, it’s odd.

So what do you think, is Mary holding the baby under the cloak? What do you think of Joseph as the protector of the hidden years, have you thought of Joseph that way?

If you’ve enjoyed this article, there are others in this series at this link

Advent in Art – Day 25 Murillo

Bartolome Esteban Murillo’s Adoration of the Shepherds


E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)

Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses

Professor William Koss, History of European Art  Lecture series, Great Courses

Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)

Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)

National Gallery of Art website

Metropolitan Museum of Art website

The Getty Center

And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.

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