Art: No ordinary Joe

Try to picture the face of St Joseph. Go on. Try harder… That’s exactly the point. So why did he become the forgotten man of the Nativity? Waldemar Januszczak peers into the shadows of that stable in Bethlehem

To prove this, try an easy experiment at home. Put down this paper, close your eyes and begin to imagine a particular Joseph in art who has caught your attention. You must have seen thousands of likenesses of him. Millions have been painted. Which is the best you have seen? I guarantee you won’t be able to decide: you cannot envisage a great painted Joseph. Why? Because there are none. Sure, all of us can come up with a vague image of a bearded old boy in a brown robe, holding a staff, that we recognise as our approximation of Joseph. But is it someone tangible, an actual presence, a brilliant portrayal? No way.

It occurs to me that you may not, perhaps, be fully au fait with Joseph’s story, and that before we embark on any explanations of why the poor blighter has been so badly coloured by artists, we need first to agree on his basic outlines. These are godless times we are living through, and even among Sunday Times readers there might be those who have never picked up a Bible and familiarised themselves fully with Joseph’s tale, or considered properly the psychological dynamics of his impossible situation. Until you think about him specifically, he is, after all, just the old boy at the back. That is his tragedy.

The first thing to stress is that our Joseph, Joseph the carpenter from Nazareth, should not, of course, be confused with the Bible’s favourite Joseph, the one who sported the Technicolor dream coat, Joseph the son of Jacob, the great lord of Egypt, whom Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce and whose many Egyptian adventures have inspired all sorts of interesting artistic interpretations. Pontormo, for instance, painted his story in a fascinating suite of Opal Fruit-coloured paintings, now in the National Gallery.

Our Joseph does not have adventures. His biblical task is to remain noble and stoic in exceptionally challenging circumstances. We know next to nothing about him, except that he was espoused to Mary and that he then discovered that Mary was pregnant, even though they had never slept together. An angel subsequently came down to tell him in a dream that this pregnancy was the doing of the Holy Spirit. And from then on, Joseph was expected to marry Mary and put up with this divine gestational turn-up, which he did.

Now, you do not need me to tell you what Middle Eastern men are really like. You do not need me to tell you what all us men are really like when it comes to the subject of our wife’s fidelity and her required ability to keep her knees clenched for anyone but us. The Bible demands many difficult reactions of its heroes, but surely the reaction it demands of Joseph — that he allows himself to be cuckolded by the Holy Spirit, then joyously permits his spouse to be used as an incubator by God — is the sternest test of religious devotion set to anyone in the 2,337 pages of the King John. Would you do it? Would I do it? Would anyone do it?

Joseph is the ultimate dumb consort. And, inevitably, a certain amount of stupidity is assumed of him as he fulfils this role. His modern equivalent would be Denis Thatcher or the Duke of Edinburgh. Like them, his job is to be there, yet somehow not to be there. But whereas Prince Philip is excused the odd foray into eccentricity and naughtiness, and Denis was allowed his tipples and his interesting array of awful opinions, Joseph is trapped for eternity in a state of profound goodness. See how Giorgione has him glowing like a log fire with golden kindliness. Joseph is simply not allowed to have any foibles or eccentricities, because anything that draws attention away from the miraculous scene we are witnessing must, in these circumstances, appear flippant or, worse, heretical.

Thus, a walk through the National Gallery searching for Josephs yields plenty of them, yet most appear to be being played by the same actor: old, bearded, useless, slow. True, Bruegel makes something Michael Foot-ish out of him, long-haired and wild-eyed. And over at Birmingham Art Gallery, Orazio Gentileschi, who gets my vote as the bravest representer of Joseph we have had, witnesses him crashed out on the desert floor on the flight into Egypt, as if he had downed a keg of Cana’s finest wine. But most artists have felt obliged to hide their essential disrespect for Joseph by endowing him with that fluffy sense of ancient goodness that is his most identifiable characteristic in art. His job is to accompany his infinitely more important wife to the scene of her miraculous birthing and to complete the crucial geometry of a family unit that this situation requires, while simultaneously being shown to be entirely useless: an appendage, an encumbrance.

How to paint this? What kind of man have we got here? The Bible tells us nothing. We don’t know if Joseph was old or young, dark or fair, thin or fat, bearded or bald. But, interestingly, and inevitably, artists have always assumed he was ancient. There is plenty of social evidence to suggest this was so: older men did take younger wives in the Middle East in circumstances such as these. But this doesn’t fully explain the huge gap that invariably separates Mary’s age from Joseph’s. Even Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas are closer in birthdays than a typical painted Mary and a typical painted Joseph. In Guido Reni’s Nativity, she is about 15 and he is about 70. If Gauguin had produced this picture, there would be much dark muttering about its sexual dynamics.

My own reading of this discrepancy is that Joseph is made as old as he is to explain away his impotence: indeed, to symbolise it. Making him old, bearded and useless gets him out of the way for the real love affair that is being engineered here, which is the one between the Virgin Mary and us. I will be excommunicated if I pursue this particular line of iconographic speculation much, er, deeper, but let us at least agree that God is not the only one tempted by Mary. She is young. She is perfect. She is virginal. And in these interesting iconographic circumstances, it is Joseph’s task to stand aside and let us desire her, religiously, to our heart’s content. It takes a particularly old, a particularly grey, a particularly kindly and a particularly feeble man to do that. It takes a Joseph.

Thus, Christmas adds up to an annual ritual humiliation for Joseph. Banished in vast numbers to the backgrounds of all those gloomy stables in all those ersatz Bethlehems, his complex iconographic task is to stand aside and let his wife be worshipped by the rest of us. Joseph’s Christmas terrain, the back of the stable, belongs properly to the ass and the ox. Yet there he must stand, because there is nowhere else for him to go. What is really being celebrated here is the poor man’s divinely engineered impotence. He is God’s cuckold. And art has no choice but to point this out — while, of course, appearing not to.