Kempe and St. JosephJoseph was an old man And an old man was he, When he wedded Mary In the land of Galilee. (The Cherry Tree Carol)
I’ve been trying since Christmas to redress a wrong. In all my years of studying Kempe stained glass I have rarely looked closely at the way St. Joseph is depicted. He doesn’t of course appear in Annunciation scenes. In Visitation windows, where Mary greets her cousin Elizabeth, he is sometimes – but by no means always – shown in the background looking on with Zacharias: two old men baffled by their wives’ sudden fertility. Next, in Nativity scenes, Joseph is often edged into the background or the bottom corner by the Shepherds, the Wise Men or the ox and ass.
He comes into his own however, in scenes dealing with the post-Nativity life of Jesus, from the Presentation in the Temple onwards. In St. Peter’s, Chalvey (Bucks.) there is a rare siting of Joseph asleep and dreaming, being warned by an angel to take Mary and the child and escape the wrath of Herod. The Flight into Egypt itself is relatively uncommon as a theme in Kempe windows, though it appears twice in St. Bridget’s, West Kirby (Cheshire). That church (which houses one of the finest sets of Kempe windows: 25 in all, between 1870-1908) has an 1881 scene of the child Jesus in the Temple conversing with the Doctors; the same cartoon was re-used the following year at St. Mary’s, Monmouth, an interesting instance of the Kempe Studio’s ensuring that windows based on the same cartoons were kept at a safe distance from each other.
Tradition has it (though there is no mention of this in the Gospels) that Joseph was not just older than Mary, but actually an old man. Kempe of course follows this tradition. In all the windows mentioned so far, Joseph is depicted as an old man: stooped, often balding or bald, and heavily bearded. In a 1903 window in St Michael and All Angels, Cherry Burton (E. Yorks.) he is depicted with a drooping, overgrown moustache so ill-kempt it hangs down in fronds over his mouth, and the only other old man I have seen thus disfigured is Noah in an 1899 window at St. Mary’s, Bromsberrow (Glos.).
Both these windows were designed when John Lisle was chief draughtsman at the Studio. But there are some interesting interpretations of Joseph that considerably pre-date these, particularly in scenes of Jesus in the Carpenter’s Shop. There is an unusual window of 1878 in Gloucester Cathedral, unusual because (according to the Commission Registers) it was designed by the architect John Dando Sedding and not by one of Kempe’s own draughtsmen. Perhaps no other Kempe window shows Joseph more alert and active – less old, indeed – than this one: in the act of sawing (with a rather modern-looking crosscut saw, though a traditional frame saw hangs on the wall) he still keeps a caring, professional eye on Jesus. The face is finely and expressively drawn, by contrast with the rather bland face of Mary who looks in through the workshop window. What goes on at the bench is men’s work, and Mary is here shown to be literally in the background while it is Joseph who takes on the job of preparing his son for adult life. (In a later, 1895, window at Eton College Lower Chapel, Mary is shown sitting at a spinning wheel while the men get on with their carpentry.)
It is interesting to contrast this image with another carpenter shop scene from the following year (1879). Here (again, at Chalvey, Bucks) the setting is both similar to, but different from, the Gloucester window. Mary looks into the carpenter’s shop, as before, but this time she leans over a wooden, half-opened stable door. The upright, spars and beams of the building indeed seem reminiscent of the stable; and, whereas the walls of the 1878 shop were well-laid brick, now the emphasis is on a rough dado, where the wood and the nails are prominent, and the carpenter’s tools hang from the wall: all as if in deliberate anticipation of the crucifixion. The young Jesus is himself planing a long piece of wood, almost as if preparing his own cross. In so doing, he looks not at Joseph but away from his parents and out of the picture towards us. Yet his eyes do not meet ours. They are fixed on a future only he can see. Joseph, meanwhile, rests upon a T-shaped auger (another prefiguring of the Cross? In the Eton College window Joseph actually holds up a cross-shaped piece of joinery). Old and exhausted, the Chalvey Joseph supports himself by leaning heavily on an upright. His weary expression suggests he knows his son has already left him far behind.
This window, with its heavy symbolism, owes something to Millais’ celebrated 1849-50 painting, Christ in the House of his Parents. Stylistically, though, in terms of the depiction of the faces of Joseph and Jesus, and in the costumes and the use of silver staining, it is characteristic of the work of Wyndham Hope Hughes, Kempe’s chief glass painter at this time.
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