Living the Dream
The striking depiction of the painting "The Dream of Joseph" by Anton Raphael Mengs
BY GINA LOEHR
“The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream” (Matthew 2:13) — for the second time!
This striking depiction of The Dream of Joseph by Anton Raphael Mengs (1728–1779) imagines Joseph receiving the divine commission to “rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt” (Matthew 2:13). But unlike Joseph’s first angelic apparition, his second dream contains no message of peace.
During this heavenly visit, instead of hearing the reassuring words, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid” (Matthew 1:20), the carpenter learns that “Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him” (Matthew 2:13). This is more like a nightmare than a sweet dream.
The German-born Mengs, whose talent and insights led him to accept the directorship of the Vatican school of painting in 1754, clearly perceived the depth of Joseph’s situation. His portrayal does not suggest a sappy piety that pretends faith is free of fear. No halo floats here above the head of a frail, stooped Joseph with raised eyes and folded hands.
On the contrary, Mengs has presented us with the image of a hearty man — skin browned by the sun, muscles bulging from hard work, hair tussled by the wind. Deep lines mark the face of this father whom God entrusted with the daunting task of guarding the Virgin and the Messiah. And in this terrible moment, we see Joseph’s brow furrowed and lips agape as he learns, if subconsciously, that a murderer is on his heels. The crazed king that would soon massacre “all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under” (Matthew 2:16) is beginning his search for Joseph’s son.
Lest we imagine that life in the Holy Family was all bliss, Mengs here offers us a dose of reality. It should come as no surprise, since part of the German painter’s artistic mission was to counteract the swirling, decorative extravagance of the Baroque style. A pioneer of the neoclassical approach, Mengs sought a kind of realistic perfection that combined Greek design with the expression of his artistic namesake, Raphael, the light and shadow of the chiaroscuro movement, and the characteristic color of the Italian painter Titian.
In addition to these artistic influences, Mengs’ Catholic wife also influenced his conversion to Catholicism, and he carried this devotion along with him as he painted. Thus, Mengs brings Joseph to life for us on the canvas, and we seem to encounter the saint in a deeply personal way as we gaze upon his slumbering face. This man of strength and courage in the midst of fear, St. Joseph, is the patron of our families and the patron of our Church. Who would not thank God for such a steadfast and sturdy patron as we see here before us?
The contrast between the man and the angel is also significant. Compare the effects of toil and labor on the face of Joseph to the pristine purity of the angel’s face. No furrowed wrinkles mar the appearance of the angel who, in truth, is freed from the burdens of a bodily life. Joseph, on the other hand, sits here as the model of a man who has embraced the challenges of this vale of tears.
With the carpenter’s saw at Joseph’s right, Mengs reminds us that Joseph worked hard to support his family. With the walking staff in hand even as he sleeps, Mengs suggests that Joseph was always ready to follow God’s call no matter the day or hour.
As such, Mengs’ piece poses a challenge to us. Are we ready to work hard, like St. Joseph, as students, parents, professionals, volunteers, or ministers? As we move from the leisure of summer into the routine of fall,
are we ready to pick up the tools of our trade and build our “muscles” through our labor? Most importantly, will we go wherever God asks us to go, with faith that he will protect us even through the worst nightmares?
Let us turn to Joseph, as so many holy men and women have done before us, and ask him to intercede for us as we, too, make our journey through the joys and sorrows of this earthly life.