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Historian traces history of depictions of Holy Family

| Monday, November 17, 2014

In this year’s final lecture of the Saturday with the Saints series, organized through the Institute for Church Life (ICL), art historian Dianne Phillips discussed the changing artistic portrayals of the Holy Family throughout Church history.

Phillips said artistic depictions of the Holy Family have theological implications, and a certain “theological subtlety and complexity … underlies many of these pictures despite their superficial veneer of simplicity.”

20141115, 20140115, Andrews Auditorium Geddes Hall, Emily McConville, Saturdays with the SaintsEmily McConville | The Observer
She said artistic representation of the Holy Family did not emerge until late in the first millennium when the Church began to discuss the theology of the Holy Family.

“The imagery of the Holy Family and its development depends on the development of the cult of St. Joseph, and very little attention was paid to him in the early Church because its intellectual energies were focused on refining theological doctrines of the trinity and the incarnation,” Phillips said. “Joseph, since he’s not the biological father of Jesus, is not really relevant to those concerns.”

In the first depictions of the Holy Family, she said, artists often portrayed Joseph as old and weak to emphasize that he could not have been Jesus’ biological father.

“The reality was that by viewers, medieval no less than modern, he came to be seen as a pathetic figure and even comic,” she said.  “His figure presents a challenge to the representation of the Holy Family.”

Phillips said the depiction of Joseph underwent a positive change in 12th century Bologna when Bernard of Clairvaux delivered a series of sermons emphasizing Joseph’s importance in the life of the Holy Family and his close and affectionate relationship with Jesus. She said Josep’s representation in religious art took on a new identity as a just and dignified man.

Portrayals of the Holy Family continued to evolve, Phillips said, and during the European Renaissance the “high style of Renaissance art” often prominently displayed the Christ Child’s body.

“The Eucharistic meaning is obvious in the display of the body of Christ,” she said.

Then in the 17th century, artists again redefined Joseph’s role in the Holy Family, she said.

“By the 17th century, there develops a genre of pictures where St. Joseph takes the lead,” she said. “Literally, instead of Madonna and child, it’s St. Joseph and child.”

However, Mary continued to be represented in a very positive light, Phillips said. A body of works accompanying the 1854 Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, in which Mary and child had white, luminous skin that indicated their purity and holiness, she said.

Phillips said depictions of the Holy Family today are more abstract than previous religious artwork owing to “the impact of the huge stylistic changes in art throughout the 20th century.”

Still, she said, there are definite allusions to earlier representations of the Holy Family in present-day artwork. A painting of the Holy Family unveiled in September for next year’s World Meeting of Families mirrors the high art of the Renaissance, Phillips said.

She said images of the Holy Family are so dynamic, due to theological and scriptural influences, but the common goal of displaying the Holy Family as a model of virtue unites the vastly different works.

“Artists in each period … have tried to create images that would move people to immerse themselves in the loving communion of the Holy Family and desire to emulate that in their own lives,” Phillips said.

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