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Legends of the Madonna - The Dream of Joseph

( Originally Published 1895 )



Although the Feast of the Visitation is fixed for the 2nd of July, it was, and is, a received opinion, that Mary began her journey to the hill country but a short time, even a few days, after the annunciation of the angel. It was the sixth month with Elizabeth, and Mary sojourned with her three months. Hence it is supposed, by many commentators, that Mary must have been present at the birth of John the Baptist. It may seem surprising that the early painters should not have made use of this supposition. I am not aware that there exists among the numerous representations of the birth of St. John any instance of the Virgin being introduced ; it should seem that the lofty ideas entertained of the Mater Pei rendered it impossible to place her in a scene where she would necessarily take a subordinate position : this, I think, sufficiently accounts for her absence. Mary then returned to her own dwelling at Nazareth; and when Joseph (who in these legendary stories is constantly represented as a house-carpenter and builder, travel-ling about to exercise his trade in various places) also came back to his home, and beheld his wife, the suspicion entered his mind that she was about to become a mother, and very naturally his mind was troubled " with sorrow and insecure apprehensions ; but being a just man, that is, according to the Scriptures and other wise writers, a good, a charitable man, he would not openly disgrace her, for he found it more agreeable to justice to treat an offending person with the easier sentence than to render her desperate, and without remedy, and provoked by the suffering of the worst of what she could fear. No obligation to justice can force a man to be cruel ; pity, and forbearance, and long-suffering, and fair interpretation, and excusing our brother" (and our sister), "and taking things in the best sense, and passing the gentlest sentence, are as certainly our duty, and owing to every person who does offend and can repent, as calling men to account can be owing to the law." (Vide Bishop Taylor's Life of Christ.) Thus says the good Bishop Taylor, praising Joseph, that he was too truly just to call furiously for justice, and that, waiving the killing letter of the law, he was " minded to dismiss his wife privily ; " and in this he emulated the mercy of his divine foster Son, who did not cruelly condemn the woman whom he knew to be guilty, but dismissed her "to repent and sin no more." But while Joseph was pondering thus in his heart, the angel of the Lord, the prince of angels, even Gabriel, appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife !" and he awoke and obeyed that divine voice.

This first vision of the angel is not in works of Art easily distinguished from the second vision ; but there is a charming fresco by Luini which can bear no other interpretation. Joseph is seated by the carpenter's bench, and leans his head on his hand, slumbering. (Milan, Brera.) An angel stands by him pointing to Mary, who is seen at a window above, busied with needlework.

On waking from this vision, Joseph, says the legend, "en-treated forgiveness of Mary for having wronged her even in thought." This is a subject quite unknown, I believe, before the fifteenth century, and not commonly met with since, but there are some instances. On one of the carved stalls of the cathedral of Amiens it is very poetically treated. (Vide Stalles d'Amiens, p. 205.) Mary is seated on a throne under a magnificent canopy; Joseph, kneeling before her and presented by two angels, pleads for pardon. She extends one hand to him ; in the other is the volume of the Holy Scriptures. There is a similar version of the text in sculpture over one of the doors of Notre Dame at Paris. There is also a picture by Alessandro Tiarini (Le repentir de Saint Joseph, Louvre), and reckoned by Malvasia his finest work, wherein Joseph kneels before the Virgin, who stands with a dignified air, and, while she raises him with one hand, points with the other up to heaven. Behind are seen the angel Gabriel with his finger on his lip, as commanding silence, and two other angels. The figures are life size, the execution and color very fine ; the whole conception in the grand but mannered style of the Guido school.



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