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Rembrandt and Joseph's Dream

This week I tried to choose a nativity-related piece that isn’t well known. It’s a Rembrandt called Joseph’s Dream or sometimes Dream of Joseph (1645). His use of light is really captivating and the mood transports you to another time. It is more of a 17th century Dutch setting than a 1st century Palestinian one, but that was typical of Rembrandt and a lot of other painters, actually.

Mary and Jesus take center stage in the Christmas story, for obvious reasons. We may not get much about Joseph but we do get one very distinctive characteristic. Joseph was a dreamer. In the short space devoted to him, he has four dreams at crucial points in the story. This piece deals with his second such dream. King Herod heard of the infant king’s birth from the visiting Magi and in a jealous rage, ordered all males 2 years old and younger to be massacred. An angel warned Joseph by dream of the coming bloodshed and told him to flee to Egypt for safety. Rembrandt’s interpretation gives us an impoverished scene without material comfort, glamor or sense of security. A divine being coming without hesitation into a scene like that is always a powerful image to me.

In the Biblical story this is a supernatural vision but Rembrandt portrays it more like a friendly visit. And the most moving part of that visit has to be the angel’s hand on Joseph’s shoulder. There is something so human about that gentle touch. And it’s reassuring. Joseph has multiple burdens on his mind and the angel is about to give him one more: to completely uproot his life once again for the sake of that baby. But at the same time, his steady hand instills a sense of encouragement. After such a tough year, it’s a great message to remember this Christmas season.

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