WHEN the Holy Family, under divine protection, had returned safely from their sojourn in Egypt, they were about to repair to Bethlehem ; but Joseph hearing that Archelaus “did reign in Judea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither : and being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into Galilee,” and came to the city of Nazareth, which was the native place and home of the Virgin Mary. Here Joseph dwelt, following in peace his trade of a carpenter, and bringing up his reputed Son to the same craft : and here Mary nurtured her divine Child ; “and he grew and waxed strong in spirit, and the grace of God was upon him.” No other event is recorded until Jesus had reached his twelfth year.
This, then, is the proper place to introduce some notice of those representations of the domestic life of the Virgin and the infancy of the Saviour, which, in all their endless variety, pass under the general title of THE HOLY FAMILY the beautiful title of a beautiful subject, addressed in the loveliest and most familiar form at once to the piety and the affections of the beholder.
These groups, so numerous, and of such perpetual recurrence that they alone form a large proportion of the contents of picture galleries and the ornaments of churches, are, after all, a modern innovation in sacred Art. What may be called the domestic treatment of the history of the Virgin cannot be traced farther back than the middle of the fifteenth century. It is, indeed, common to class all those pictures as Holy Families which include any of the relatives of Christ grouped with the Mother and her Child ; but I must here recapitulate and insist upon the distinction to be drawn between the domestic and the devotional treatment of the subject; a distinction I have been careful to keep in view throughout the whole range of sacred Art, and which, in this particular subject, depends on a difference in sentiment and intention, more easily felt than set down in words.
It is, I must repeat, a devotional group where the sacred personages are placed in direct relation to the worshippers, and where their supernatural character is paramount to every other. It is a domestic or an historical group, a Holy Family properly so called, when the personages are placed in direct relation to each other by some link of action or sentiment which expresses the family connection between them, or by some action which has a dramatic rather than a religious significance. The Italians draw this distinction in the title ” Sacra Conversazione,” given to the first-named subject, and that of ” Sacra Famiglia,” given to the last. For instance, if the Virgin, watching her sleeping Child, puts her finger on her lip to silence the little St. John, there is here no relation between the spectator and the persons represented, except that of unbidden sympathy : it is a family group, a domestic scene. But if St. John, looking out of the picture, points to the Infant, “Behold the Lamb of God! ” then the whole representation changes its significance ; St. John assumes the character of precursor, and we, the spectators, are directly addressed and called upon to acknowledge the ” Son of God, the Saviour of mankind.”
If St. Joseph, kneeling, presents flowers to the Infant Christ, while Mary looks on tenderly (as in a group by Raphael), it is an act of homage which expresses the mutual relation of the three personages ; it is a Holy Family : whereas, in the picture by Murillo, in our National Gallery, where Joseph and Mary present the young Redeemer to the homage of the spectator, while the form of the PADRE ETERNO, and the Holy Spirit, with attendant angels, are floating above, we have a devotional group, a ” Sacra Conversazione : ” it is, in fact, a material representation of the Trinity ; and the introduction of Joseph into such immediate propinquity with the personages acknowledged as divine is one of the characteristics of the later schools of theological Art. It could not possibly have occurred before the end of the sixteenth or the beginning of the seventeenth century.
The introduction of persons who could not have been contemporary, as St. Francis or St. Catherine, renders the group ideal and devotional. On the other hand, as I have already observed, the introduction of attendant angels does not place the subject out of the domain of the actual; for the painters literally rendered what in the Scripture text is distinctly set down and literally interpreted, “He shall give his angels charge concerning thee.” Wherever lived and moved the Infant Godhead, angels were always supposed to be present ; therefore it lay within the province of an art addressed especially to our senses to place them bodily before us, and to give to these heavenly attendants a visible shape and bearing worthy of their blessed ministry.
The devotional groups, of which I have already treated most fully, even while placed by the accessories quite beyond the range of actual life, have been too often vulgarized and formalized by a trivial or merely conventional treatment. In these really domestic scenes, where the painter sought un-reproved his models in simple nature, and trusted for his effect to what was holiest and most immutable in our common humanity, he must have been a bungler indeed if he did not succeed in touching some responsive chord of sympathy in the bosom of the observer. This is, perhaps, the secret of the universal, and, in general, deserved, popularity of these Holy Families.