By: Anna Doctor, Museum Intern
St. Joseph, the foster father to Jesus Christ, has never really seen much of the spotlight in European Christian liturgy and art. When he is shown he is typically depicted as a haggard, old man sitting off to the side who rarely engages with the Christ child. Francesco Granacci, a Florentine Renaissance artist, depicts the figure slumped over with heavy eyelids and head in hand as he fiddles with his staff in the painting Adoration of the Christ Child.
He was not seen as an important character in the life of Jesus. But then came the Spanish empire, during the time of their colonization of the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries, and they took this rejected side character and transformed him into an adored, young, caring, and macho father. This image not only spread throughout Spain and some parts elsewhere in Europe but across the deep blue sea to the American Southwest as well as Central and South America. He became the patron saint of the unification of the Spanish empire. He was seen as an emblem of fatherhood and manhood, upholding the strict gender roles practiced in the Spanish empire.
On the right is a retablo, a devotional painting that typically appeared in a church, currently on display in “The Art of Storytelling” at the Fine Arts Center. St. Joseph is depicted cheek-to-cheek with the Christ child who reaches out lovingly towards his fatherly figure. St. Joseph takes center stage in this piece to highlight his role as a caring father in order to demonstrate what worshippers should be practicing as well.
Similarly, in another retablo on the left, St. Joseph and the Christ child are shown in an identical pose but this time, the foster father is decked out in regal attire topping it all off with a crown. This serves to elevate his status to the level of royalty and remind the viewer of the Spanish authority.
In a retablo depicting the Holy Family, Jesus stands in between Joseph and the Virgin Mary. It is a rather blissful interpretation of a family as they hold hands and exchange loving glances, particularly between Joseph and the Christ child. Not only does this scene look appealing but the reason the Holy Family is presented in such a naturalized way is so that any male viewer from the time could imagine himself into this scene with his own family. The Spanish used these images during colonization to implement and normalize their strict gender roles enforced by their Catholic beliefs. In the Americas these images carried over into the Post-Colonial era and are even still seen today. The Spanish took this peripheral biblical character and transformed him with the intention of sustaining their political, social, and religious dominance over their colonies.
Museum Internship Program
Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation