Man in Background ?

Josefina de Vasconcellos, they fled by night.detail
Cartmel Priory. Photo: Mr G.

St. Joseph’s Day 2021

Josefina de Vasconcellos, the sculptor, was commissioned on a  number of occasions to carve large statues of the Holy Family.  What never fails to strike me is that always Joseph is central to the scene.  He does not lurk in the background or act like some passive kind of bystander.  Josefina shows him as a strong fatherly figure who is a protector of both Mary and Jesus.  It is clear that Josefina had a soft spot for the shadowy figure from the Christmas story and was determined to give him the prominence he deserves.  Perhaps it was because she was graced with the female form of his name.

One particular statue of the Holy Family, which I’ve featured on this blog before, is one that was graphically very different.  It can be seen in Cartmel Priory in the Lake District.  It is called They fled by night and it was inspired by the flight into Egypt taken by the Holy Family to escape the threat of King Herod.

It is a very powerfully real  statue.  Mary is shown to be exhausted with her head leaning backwards as she rests in Joseph’s arms.  Joseph is holding her and looking down with loving compassion. Despite being exhausted himself he was concerned only about her. Meanwhile in the foreground of the composition, Jesus is leaping forward as he embraces the future. 

What I like about Josefina’s portrayal of Joseph is that he is not the shadow figure that we find in the Gospel.  Apart from Matthew’s ‘dream’ sequence when an angel tells Joseph it is God’s will to take Mary as his wife, and an incident when Jesus was 12, Joseph plays no further part in the Gospel story.  There is a reference to him when Jesus is called the carpenter’s son but we are left wondering – what happened to Joseph?

We can invent our own story but I like to think that Joseph was content with his role in making the Incarnation possible.  In a world like ours which celebrates status and fame it isn’t a bad thing to be background people.  Those with a quiet but firm faith are the bedrock of the Church. They seek nothing more than to proclaim Jesus, not necessarily in words or spectacular deeds but with a fidelity towards Him which simply shouts faith in all they do and are.  In Josefina’s statues Joseph comes across as a dependable, caring and protective parent.  If I could choose a guardian angel, it would be like him. 

It is good to think of him as the dependable one who may be in the background but whose care of Jesus and Mary is truly godly.  Joseph, who can be relied upon and sought nothing for himself.  Does that describe you?


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