Sunday, December 11, 2016

Matthew 1.18-25: Joseph, Do Not Be Afraid

The tie between the Gospel reading and the reading from Hebrew scripture for Advent 4A is Matthew's quotation of the Isaiah reading: the young woman/virgin is with child/shall conceive and shall bear a son and (they) shall name him Emmanuel. (Isaiah 7:10-16/Matthew 1:18-25). The gospel writer quotes the prophet in order to reinforce the angel's assurance to Joseph in the minds and ears of the hearers. In the context of the gospel reading, the idea is presented in order to assure Joseph that he and Mary can be betrothed without any qualms.

Joseph is convinced by the angel's statement. So Joseph and Mary are engaged. Or betrothed. Or married.

It's an almost lost episode in the story. Luke gives the betrothal a couple of verses, but Matthew seems to let the angel's assurance imply that the ceremony (or ceremonies if betrothal and marriage are separated) occurs. Though not described in scripture, the subject is treated in art, usually with Mary and Joseph standing on either side of a church official. Mary's hand is outstretched and Joseph puts a ring on her finger. There is often an architectural setting - sometimes a quotation of the building in which the painting lives (as a means of making the scene more immediate and perhaps providing silent encouragement for all brides and grooms who are married in that church). In some versions the bride wears white; in others, she wears a red tunic with a blue cloak.
(Left) Raphael. The Marriage of the Virgin. 1504. Milan: Pinacoteca di Brera.  (Right) Tissot. The Betrothal of the Holy Virgin and Saint Joseph. 1886-1894. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Museum.
Both of the paintings above treat the subject of the marriage/betrothal of Mary and Joseph. Each is fabricated by the artist. Renaissance artist Raphael paints the holy couple standing in front of a central plan building reminiscent of Bramante's Tempietto in Rome, which was built in 1502. the building would have still be quite new when the painting was done in 1504. The composition employs severe one-point perspective and arranges the people in a semi-circle that echoes the architecture. The marriage ceremony seems to be less important in the composition that the artist's bravura demonstration of perspective. 

Tissot takes a completely different approach, concocting a scene filled with exotic detail that symbolizes the near eastern setting of the story. The bride and groom wear elaborately patterned garments and walk under a patterned canopy. Beneath their feet is a flower petal-strewn carpet. Sections of Roman (round) arches indicate the building in or near which the ceremony takes place.

In both images, there is a crowd and ceremony and onlookers and official blessing of this union. People are well-dressed and somber. Is this how you imagined the beginning of life together for this couple? What else is there to say about how artists have depicted this story? See  Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page. 

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