Danuta Waberska’s St Joseph with Young Jesus. A study in the iconology and aesthetics of reception

Michał Haake

Poznań, Adam Mickiewicz University


The article proposes a multidimensional interpretation of Danuta Waberska’s altarpiece St Joseph with Young Jesus at the Bernardine Church in Poznań. Firstly, it analyzes the connection between the image and the biblical story; questions are asked about the status of St Joseph as the guardian of the Son of God and the extent of Christ’s knowledge of his future fate on earth. Secondly, the painting is placed in the context of tradition, in which the childhood of Jesus has come to be represented with recourse to a certain symbolic code (Pre-Raphaelites). Thirdly, the work is examined in strict connection with the spatial context of its display (the structure of the altar, the relations between the altar and the broader space of the church, the position of the viewer). The conclusion is that the deep semantics of the painting result from the reference of its iconography to the mystery of the Eucharist.

Keywords: Danuta Waberska, St Joseph, aesthetics of reception


A cursory glance at the 1991 painting of Danuta Waberska in the Bernardine Church of St Francis Seraphicus in Poznan[fig. 1] may suggest it is deeply rooted in the 19th-century conventions of altar painting. On closer analysis, however, such as is attempted in this study, St Joseph with Young Jesus appears to be an intriguing piece that conveys its message through an array of non-conventional means.

Christ’s childhood is given particular attention in the Gospel of St Luke; the evangelist recounts that, in Nazareth, Jesus was obedient to Joseph and Mary (Luke 2:51) and continued to grow “in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52). Joseph, the legal guardian of the child, “introduced the necessary balance to the task of upbringing and worked with his spouse to turn the house in Nazareth into an environment conducive to the personal growth and development of Jesus. By initiating his son into the hard carpenter’s profession, Joseph helped Jesus enter the world of labour and eased his integration into social life.”[1]

Waberska’s painting [fig. 1] depicts Christ at an age of twelve. It sends us back to the only well-documented event of his childhood: the day when he strays from Mary and Joseph near the Temple of Jerusalem, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” His parents only found him there three days later.[2] The theological dimension of the episode comes to light in the answer Jesus gives to his Mother’s reproachful question: “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you” (Luke 2:48). Manifest in his reply is the awareness that he has been sent to bring truth to the world: “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2: 49–50).

Accepting “his exclusive dedication to the Father and not to his family ties on earth”, he announced his “absolute separateness” from Mary and Joseph; at the same time, the two were invited to “transcend reality and open up to the new perspective of His future.”[3] Waberska depicted Jesus and Joseph in a moment of great tenderness. In this context, it is important to bear in mind the difference between the words “your father” that Mary uses to refer to Joseph, and those that Jesus uses to refer to God: “my Father”. The tenderness that he receives from Joseph is all the more telling in light of Joseph’s awareness that the boy in his arms does not properly belong to him.

Translated by Urszula Jachimczak

[1] John Paul II, Żywot Maryi, Kraków 2012, p. 145.

[2] It is only at the end of the first day that Jesus’s parents notice his absence. It was absolutely natural for them to assume that he was following somewhere together with other pilgrims […]. The number of days, three, can be explained very easily. On the first day, Mary and Joseph walked north [from Jerusalem – M. H.]; on the second, they walked back, and, at long last, they found Jesus on the third. Cf. J. Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), Jezus z Nazaretu. Dzieciństwo, transl. W. Szymona OP, Kraków 2012, p. 164.

[3] John Paul II 2012 (fn. 1), p. 154.

[4] John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Redemptoris Custos. On the Person and Mission of Saint Joseph in the Life of Christ and of the Church, translation after: http://www.vatican.va [accessed: 30 Aug. 2013].

[5] Pope Paul VI, Speech of 19 March 1966: Insegnamenti, IV (1966), 110, quoted after: Jan Paweł II (fn. 4).

[6] John Paul II (fn. 4).

[7] Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U P, 1965–1967) 2.278.

[8] Quoted after Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III.15.6

[9] Ibidem.

[10] Ibidem, “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52). Benedict XVI comments that as a man, Jesus did not live in a state of abstract omniscience, but was rooted in history, in a specific place and time, following the stages of human life, and in this manner his knowledge took shape. It is clear that he thought and learned the way men do. Cf.: Ratzinger 2012 (fn. 2), p. 169.

[11] Thomas Aquinas (fn. 8), III.10.1.

[12] Ibidem, III.10.3

[13] Ibidem.

[14] Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea (Golden Chain). Gospel of St Matthew 1:18-25.

[15] Millais’s painting, initially presented without a title but with a verse from the Book of Zechariah (13:6), which referred the words speaking of the blood of a false prophet to the sacrifice of Christ, drew the charges of blasphemy, cf. E. Morris, The Subject of Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents, “Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes”, 1970, vol. 33, pp. 343–344.

[16] See: www.prayerflowers.com/Jesus.htm [accessed: 12 Jun. 2013].

[17] For more information, cf.: J. Nicoll, The Pre-Raphaelites, London 1970; Praeraffaeliten, exhibition catalogue, Staatliche Kunsthalle in Baden-Baden, 23 Nov. 1973 – 24 Feb. 1974, ed. K. Gallwitz, Baden-Baden 1973; G. Crepaldi, Rossetti i prerafaelici, transl. A. Majewska, Warszawa 2006. About Millais’s painting: A.L. Baldry, Sir John Everett Millais. His Art and Influence, London 1899; Morris 1970 (fn. 15), pp. 343–345; G.H. Fleming, John Everett Millais. A Biography, London 1998, pp. 54–65; A. Sanders, Millais and Literature, in: John Everett Millais. Beyond the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, ed. D.N. Mancoff, New Haven–London 2001, p. 73.

[18] A.S. Labuda, Oko, obraz, słowo. Charles Sterling i Otto Pächt, “Biuletyn Historii Sztuki” 55, 1993, no. 4, pp. 347, 352.

[19] W. Kemp, Der Anteil des Betrachters. Rezeptionsästhetische Studien zur Malerei des 19. Jahrhunderts, München 1983, pp. 33–34. The material access conditions for a building, for instance, are determined by the urban plan; those for a painting or sculpture – by architecture. In the sociological dimension, they are shaped, for example, by rituals concerning the perception and cult of art. Anthropogenic access conditions, on the other hand, derive from the individual and social characteristics of the observer or owner of the painting.

[20] I extend my thanks to Rev. Wojciech Lippa for bringing this detail to my attention.

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