El Greco’s Joseph defies the conventions observed in many depictions, in which a decrepit figure plays a merely supporting role in the doings of the Holy Family. Here Joseph takes centre stage, alone with Jesus, and he is a tall, lean man in his prime—the better to fulfil the responsibility he bears, for it is he who is instructed to, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel’ (Matthew 2:20).
Joseph, carrying a crook, shepherds the child on the journey. They make their way away from the city in the background, Toledo, El Greco’s home in his exile from Crete. However, this journey from exile is not joyous or even simply arduous, as any such journey might be—especially for those who, like these two, go barefoot. Joseph’s downward and humble gaze seems not so much outward as inward. He appears preoccupied, perhaps troubled; and he draws the child into his protective embrace. The child looks out at us rather solemnly and reaches out to his father—seeking his father’s protection, or perhaps offering a reassuring touch (or even reaching prematurely for the crook?). In any case, father and son are bound together in a solidarity of ‘tender sadness’ (Bronstein, 1991: 66) and mutual concern as they make their way under that threatening, glowering, sombre sky—as if both already sense the end of the journey on which they are set, hinted at by the blood-red robe of a martyr worn by the child.
And yet, in curious contrast to the gravity of their circumstances, there is a joyous and gravity-defying circus of tumbling cherubs above Joseph’s head, ready to garland him with laurels, wreaths, and flowers—tokens of heavenly esteem. And Joseph, Jesus, and the cherubs are all bathed in a bright light, which renders even more stark the contrast with the dark scene through which they move. The cause of the celebration is clear enough, for even as he leads the child towards Israel, Jerusalem, and death, Joseph is gloriously fulfilling his great responsibility to shepherd the Good Shepherd.
Bronstein, L. 1991. El Greco (Domenicos Theotocopoulos) (London: Thames and Hudson)
14And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.”
19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, 20“Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21And he rose and took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaʹus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”