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19 Dec
Mon / 2011

Saint Joseph and the Christ Child

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For some, the Christmas season is not only a very festive time of year, but one of devotion and reflection. Rienzi has several paintings pertaining to the reflective nature of Christmas. One of these paintings is Saint Joseph and the Christ Child, painted by the Italian Guido Reni between 1638 and 1640, is on view year round in Rienzi's Library.

Reni created many remarkable devotional paintings during the Catholic Counter-Reformation.  Against his father’s wishes, Reni became an apprentice under the Mannerist artist Denis Calvaert with Franceso Albani and Domenichino.  Reni, like Albani and Domenichino, eventually left Calvaert for the Carracci Academy, where nature and non-Mannerist work was studied. Reni himself was deeply religious, and said to have been a modest, quiet man. 

Contrasting with his tender exterior, Reni struggled with a gambling addiction.  After the death of his mother, Reni’s gambling and debts escalated to the point where he hired himself out to an art dealer that paid him to paint by the hour. He additionally began to repaint versions of his popular works in order to sell them quickly. Despite his imperfections, Reni’s work was still praised and exalted in his lifetime. Posthumously, Reni’s work was and is celebrated for his “pictures of Paradise.”

The figure of Saint Joseph displays a tender, loving gaze at the newborn Jesus, expressing his adoration for the infant. Jesus holds what appears to be an apple, expressing a duality within its symbolism. The apple is a symbol representing the fall of man in the Garden of Eden but because the apple is from the Tree of Knowledge, it is also alluding “to his future mission as Redeemer of mankind from original sin.” 

In painting, saints and religious figures, like many mythological figures, were represented through symbols and unique identifying traits. One of the items used to identify Saint Joseph is the Christ Child in his arms. Other attributes used are carpenter’s tools, a staff with white lily blossoms, and advanced age. The choice of Saint Joseph as the subject probably directly relates to the rejuvenated Catholic spirituality of the era. Two popular religious figures, Saint Teresa of Avila (1515 – 1582), a Carmelite nun, and Saint Ignatius Loyola (1491 – 1556), the founder of the Jesuits, were instrumental in promoting the popularity of Saint Joseph as a devotional figure during Reni’s lifetime. 

Reni’s Saint Joseph and the Christ Child reflects two different schools of study in Italian baroque painting. Studying under Calvaert, a Mannerist using chiaroscuro to his advantage, and with the Carracci Academy, comprised of naturalists and proponents of colore, Reni’s works are characterized by their duality and ability to express a natural figure within the context of classical design. According to Oxford Art Online, “There was, in fact, a perpetual struggle in Reni’s vision between the Carracci’s reformed way of seeing and that of the Mannerists.” 

Reni’s devotional works uniquely display a simplicity and gracefulness that has been attributed to his deep religious beliefs. The figures of Saint Joseph and the infant Jesus take center stage and are uninhibited by a cluttered or distinct setting. Instead of using an aura like many pre-Counter-Reformation painters did, Reni uses chiaroscuro to illuminate the face of Saint Joseph, implying the importance of his figure.

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About Casey Monahan

Casey Monahan

Casey Monahan joined Rienzi as education assistant in 2010. She received her B.A. in art history and history from the College of the Holy Cross, and her M.A. in art history from the University of Houston. At Rienzi, the Massachusetts native works with docents, tours, and other public programs. 

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