Uniwersytet Rzeszowski
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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.


The conclusion is in no way affected by the unambiguous remark with which St Luke chooses to end his account of the reunion in the temple: “But they did not understand what he was saying to them.” Jesus’s reply must have reminded Joseph of the words he had heard from an angel twelve years earlier: “Joseph… do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1: 20–21). Taking this line of reasoning further, it is not out of place to suppose that Joseph’s awareness was also moved by the memory of Jesus’s presentation in the Temple and the words of Simeon, who had recognized the baby as “a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of… Israel,” as well as his prophecy of the sorrowful future of the Messiah: “this child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” The two parents took in these words in silence. We know that Mary weighed them in her heart.

Joseph’s attitude is shaped by his acceptance of the angel’s annunciation: “he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (Matthew 1:24); his actions serve as the purest example of the “obedience of faith” (cf. Romans1:5; 16:26; 2 Corinthians 10:5-6). From the moment of annunciation and the presentation in the Temple, Joseph knew he was the bearer of divine mystery. At the age of twelve, Jesus at last expressed the nature of the mystery in concrete terms: “I had to be in my Father’s house” (Luke 2: 49–50).[4]

With this in mind, the analysis of any visual representation of the relationship between adolescent Jesus and Joseph should take into account the message of the angel and the words of Simeon (especially that it is rather inconclusive whether the scene depicted in Waberska’s painting precedes or follows the teaching of Jesus in the Temple). We would not do full justice to the painting, were we to read the gesture of Joseph only as an attempt to pacify Jesus’s emotions; it is also a gesture of acceptance properly understood only in the perspective of Joseph’s fatherhood: “His fatherhood is expressed concretely in his having made his life a service, a sacrifice to the mystery of the Incarnation and to the redemptive mission connected with it; in having used the legal authority which was his over the Holy Family in order to make a total gift of self, of his life and work; in having turned his human vocation to domestic love into a superhuman oblation of self, an oblation of his heart and all his abilities into love placed at the service of the Messiah growing up in his house.”[5] Particularly important is the silence of the saint: “The same aura of silence that envelops everything else about Joseph also shrouds his work as a carpenter in the house of Nazareth. It is, however, a silence that reveals in a special way the inner portrait of the man. The Gospels speak exclusively of what Joseph »did«. Still, they allow us to discover in his »actions« – shrouded in silence as they are – an aura of deep contemplation. Joseph was in daily contact with the mystery »hidden from ages past«, and which »dwelt« under his roof.”[6] In conclusion, the relationship between Joseph and Jesus should be looked at not just in the context of a particular event in the life of Jesus, but also within the broader perspective of Joseph’s role in the universal history of redemption.

The relationship between the characters in the painting is manifest not only in their embrace, but also in their heads touching; the proximity of Joseph’s lips to Jesus’ forehead alludes to a kiss. In order to interpret the painting, it is also important to see that the young Christ is standing on two wooden beams. In the context of his death, they can be seen not only as two physical elements arranged in the shape of a cross, but also as the sign of the cross. The second interpretation, of course, is predicated on the high degree of resemblance between the sign and its referent, which, following Peirce, allows us to classify it as an icon: “a great distinguishing property of the icon is that by the direct observation of it other truths concerning its object can be discovered than those which suffice to determine its construction.”[7] Once established, the interpretation of the beams as the sign of the cross, however, leads to further questions. What is the connection between the sign of the cross and the embrace depicted in the painting? In other words, are the characters aware of the mechanism of salvation, which is to culminate on the cross? More specifically, is the sign of the cross a commentary on the state of mind of Jesus or merely a sign recovered by the viewer?

It would not be far-fetched, I suppose, to claim that Waberska’s Jesus must be in an emotional state of some kind. St Ambrose once wrote that Christ “as a man… had sorrow; for he bore my sorrow.”[8] The question of Jesus’s emotional life is a complex one. As concerns sadness, the doctrine of the Church holds that “sorrow was not in Christ, as a perfect passion; yet it was inchoatively in him as a »propassion«.”[9] Regardless of what specific emotional state is represented in the painting if there is any connection between the embrace and the sign of the cross, it must first be determined whether Christ, as a man, knew of his future death on the cross.

Thomas Aquinas claims that Christ possessed three kinds of knowledge: beatific knowledge, i.e. knowledge based not on faith but on being able to contemplate God “face to face”; infused knowledge, i.e. knowledge possessed from birth; and empirical knowledge, i.e. acquired knowledge, which is human knowledge in the strictest sense (he had to learn how to walk, talk, work in the carpenter’s shop, etc.).[10] To ask whether Christ knew of his future death on the cross is to ask whether he knew the Word of God, because it was through the latter that “all things came into being”; the Word created all things past, present, and future. It is to ask, further, whether Jesus possessed this knowledge as a man, by virtue of his human nature, i.e. the union of body and soul. On to Thomas Aquinas: “the soul of Christ does not comprehend the Word,”[11] it does not know the fullness of God’s glory. His knowledge, however, encompasses the awareness of all that “is, or was, or will be”, as well as “all that in any way whatsoever is, will be, or was done, said, or thought, by whomsoever and at any time.”[12] The capacity to know the “future” was also part of the knowledge infused by the Holy Spirit, thanks to which “Christ knew all things made known to man by Divine revelation, whether they belong to the gift of wisdom or the gift of prophecy, or any other gift of the Holy Ghost.”[13] He knew who he was (“Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2: 49–50)) and, accordingly, was aware of the Old Testament prophecies predicting his death and resurrection. The cross in Waberska’s painting, therefore, can be said to reflect the state of Christ’s consciousness. In other words, Jesus does not step on the beams only to embrace Joseph more easily; rather, he does so as a sign, which may also go some way towards explaining his behaviour and his sadness.

Let us stop for a while and consider what it is precisely that allows us to read the arrangement of the beams not just as an arrangement of two physical objects, but also as the sign of the cross. As noted above, the interpretation will immediately suggest itself to any viewer who knows the story of Jesus and his death. The Catholic doctrine supplies an additional justification in the words of John Chrysostom: “therefore Mary was espoused to a carpenter, because Jesus, the Spouse of the Church, was to work the salvation of the world by the wood of the Cross.”[14] The perception of anyone familiar with Christian iconography and the history of painting, on the other hand, will no doubt be informed by the recollection of two paintings, one by John Everett Millais and the other by William Holman Hunt, both of which depict Jesus in the carpenter’s shop (Christ in the House of His Parents from 1850, Tate Gallery [fig. 2]; The Shadow of Death from 1870–1873, Manchester Art Gallery [fig. 3]). In light of John Chrysostom’s remarks, the depiction of the carpenter’s shop characters’ behaviour and the relations between individual elements in the two Pre-Raphaelite paintings further serve to reinforce such associations (for instance, the Jesus of Millais’s painting has just cut his finger and blood from the cut is shown dripping on his foot; Hunt, in turn, projects the shadow of Christ’s outstretched hands onto the carpenter’s board).[15] Known from myriads of reproductions, the paintings represent a tradition in which images of young Jesus at work are supplanted by symbols alluding to his Passion. Many illustrate the convention in a much less sophisticated manner, e.g. by showing Jesus carrying crossed beams on his back. It is not my intention to conclude whether Waberska’s work is closer to that of Millais or to some of its lesser and rather banal imitations. I shall content myself with the hypothesis that it forms part of the broader strategy of allusion. It should be noted that the painting differs from representations in which the sign of the cross is introduced explicitly, for instance, as a shadow cast by Jesus.[16] It is through prior knowledge of the biblical story that the viewer can look at the works of Waberska and the Pre-Raphaelites and Waberska and easily decipher the seemingly random constellation of symbols.[17] The decoding process begins with the discovery of a surprising motif that does not follow from the relations between elements as it is known from reality.

Presented thus far, our reading of Waberska’s work has relied on a prior knowledge of its content, both on the general (the story of Christ’s death) and the individual plane (the knowledge possessed by Jesus). This pattern applies to religious art in general; the content of religious paintings is always already known beforehand. However, the Scriptures hardly ever instruct us how to imagine biblical events and characters. To say that the arrangement of the beams can only be seen as the sign of the cross on the basis of prior knowledge is to beg the question of how its representation was imagined; it is to pronounce on the meaning of the image without considering its sensory component. It is crucially important to determine what role in the perception of a painting is played by its sensory, visual side. The history of struggle over images supplies relevant argumentation. With regard to Waberska’s painting, one question that art history can, and should, ask of all its objects has not yet been posed. I concur with the view of scholars such as Charles Sterling, Otto Pächt, and Zdzisław Kępiński that “the truth of a sculpture or painting lies in its visual aspect” and “the eye of the beholder is vested with the capacity to understand the truth, which it can subsequently translate into words.”[18] My intention is to take a closer look at Waberska’s painting to determine whether the questions of truth are also appropriate with regard to religious representation.

An analysis of the visual side of St Joseph with Young Christ will also allow us to address the question of its artistic value. A cursory glance at the centuries of tradition may incline us to dismiss the painting as verging on the banal. However, the academic discipline of art history, as I understand it, teaches us to withhold judgment until a work of art has been thoroughly examined. The analysis should not hastily subordinate the painting to preconceived notions of what makes a work of art valuable; rather, it should describe what makes it unique, that is, its visual side. After all, no other thing in the world looks exactly like it.

In order meet the task, I will draw on the insights of the aesthetics of reception, broadly understood as the study of how the visual side of a work is conditioned by the context of its display. To use the terminology of Wolfgang Kemp, I am interested in the relation between Zugangsbedingungen, the access conditions, and Darstellung, the form that the artist gave to her subject to establish connections between its elements.[19]

The altar decorated by Waberska’s painting is situated along the axis of the northern sequence of pillars separating the naves of the church, specifically, on the wall of the nave near the eastern half-pillar [fig. 4]. The painting is placed in a frame between two pilasters which support the entablature with its crowning pediment [fig. 5]. The centripetal structure of the altar mirrors the architecture seen in the background of the depiction of Joseph and Jesus. The three parts of the altar, i.e. the two pilasters and the central casement correspond to the threefold division of the architectural background in the painting: the brick wall on the left, the door in the middle, and the wall of the garden on the right. The function of the side elements is to provide framing for the figures; particularly emphasized is the erect figure of Joseph. The attention of a viewer who approaches the altar from the central nave is immediately drawn to the saint by the transverse beam of the “cross”. Jesus, clad in white, is turned towards Joseph. In terms of colour, Joseph serves as the background for the child and provides support for him on the conceptual level. The whiteness of Jesus’ garments imperceptibly blends into the whiteness of Joseph’s right sleeve;[20] the sleeve itself hangs down over a group of lily flowers. Three out of the lilies are not turned towards the viewer but towards the saint. Together with Joseph, whom they symbolize, they are placed along the axis of the entryway to the house and inscribed in the doorframe. (Their position vis-à-vis Joseph is also underscored by the arrangement of the saint’s striped veil, whose three folds cascade down towards them).

At the same time, when the central focus with its compositional and symbolic emphasis on Joseph seems the strongest, the unity of the figures is relativized by their differential relation to the central segment. The figure of Joseph is optically related to the door frame, which rises slightly above him and encloses him from the left. In contrast, even though Jesus points towards the building with his left hand, thus signalling his connection with the household, he is largely placed outside the middle segment. The segment places strong emphasis on the figure of Joseph and is slightly displaced from the axis of the painting. Jesus and his guardian come together precisely along this axis. Their mutual relationship, as should now be clear, is shaped by the planar order, the order of the painting.

At the same time, the figure of Christ stands in the shadow cast on the garden wall in the background. The shadow is important, because it acts as an element of optical symmetry; the distance from its outline to the axis of the painting is the same as that from the edge of the brick wall [fig. 6a]. The edge of the wall and the upward extension of the shadow both touch the ends of the upper strip of the frame [fig. 6b]. In consequence, the figures are optically placed between the brick wall to the right and the illuminated rectangle on the garden wall to the left. The former is optically linked to the orange robe of Joseph and his symbol, the lilies; the latter, with the white shirt of Jesus and the grapes that symbolize him. A four-step transition is evident from the matter of the wall to the light that dematerializes it [fig. 6c].

These relationships shift perception from a view that considers the figures against their architectural background to one that situates them in the planar order. Rather than perceiving the architectural segments in their simultaneous projection against the background, it is possible to consider their structural succession from left to right.

Tracking this succession, the eye uncovers a strict correspondence between the structure of the painting and the spatial context which conditions its perception. The path towards the altar leads mainly through the central nave. A sequence of arcaded pillars by the northern wall allows entry to the cloister. No matter whether the painting is looked at from the central nave or the outlet of the pathway, however, the altar is seen in the context of a pillar situated in the presbytery, with a suspended canopied pulpit and an enormous statue of Christ, as well as in the context of the presbytery’s high ceiling [fig. 7]. These elements constitute the cross-section of the pillar’s side, which is twice broken at a right angle. The layout of the architectural segments in the painting reflects the simultaneously perceived architectural structure of the church. The wall of the nave corresponds to the brick wall to the left, the side of the pillar on which the pulpit is suspended mirrors the doorway, and the presbytery represents the slightly removed wall of the garden. The architectural backdrop of the painting is optically structured in analogy with the space of the church. The optical succession of segments from left to right discussed above corresponds to the progression from the nave towards the presbytery. It is important to note that the analogy does not hold between the illusionary order of the painting and the space of the church. It has nothing to do with the illusion of spatial continuity. Since the succession of segments is a visual relation, and not the result of an illusion, the analogy is between the space of the church and the visual order.

The positioning of the architectural background in the painting towards the presbytery of the church is mirrored by the position of the longer beam of the “cross”. Specifically, the beam guides the eye towards the edge of the painting. Any conceptual attempt at the reconstruction of its trajectory beyond the edge would belie perception. The beam points not towards its own physical continuation but to the space that unfolds to the right of the painting and contains the image of the Risen Christ. This is where the Eucharist is celebrated. In this way, the painting directs the viewer beyond itself towards the space of divine presence. It is, therefore, not a historical painting designed to recount a particular episode in the life of Jesus. It is a work of art which transcends its own visual side and directs the viewer not towards what is past but towards what is present, and which is somehow anticipated in the symbols of the grapes and the light. In relation to this presence, Waberska’s painting is “merely” an image.

The value of this work rests not on the more or less successful transposition of traditional motifs. It stems from its role as a religious painting, from pointing towards a mystery not only foreseen but actually present.

It also serves to demonstrate that the truth of the painting, as defined at the beginning of this article, and its religious content can be geared together, or better yet, that the former can serve to express the latter.


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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