Tuesday, December 23, 2003

No Ordinary Joe

There's a most entertaining article on Joseph in The Times by Waldemar Januszczak:

Art: No Ordinary Joe

The article is essentially about the depiction of Joseph in art, but it involves some reflection too on the Biblical account. A couple of excerpts:
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.

[ . . . ]

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.
Januszczak wonders at why Joseph does get depicted as an old man in contrast to the youthful Mary given the absence of any indication from the New Testament. But while absent from the New Testament, apocryphal texts do make Joseph considerably older than Mary, e.g. the second century Protevangelium of James in which Joseph is already a widower with sons.

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