Art lovers can spot Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s trademark Madonnas from across a room. The Spanish painter’s ethereal, raven-haired, porcelain-skinned portrayals of the Virgin Mary tenderly embracing her son or hovering on heavenly clouds grace museums across the world. Yet for every innovative image of the Mother of God that the Baroque artist painted, he produced an equally pioneering depiction of fatherhood.
To illustrate paternal virtue, Murillo used scriptural examples, and his greatest source of inspiration was St. Joseph, husband of Mary and foster father of Jesus Christ. More subdued in color and gesture than his radiant Madonnas, Murillo’s St. Joseph paintings extol the nuanced qualities that typify great fathers.
St. Joseph took a long time to find his place in the history of art. Without a single spoken word recorded in the Bible, he remained absent in early Christian frescos and carvings, eventually appearing as a worried old man crouched in the corner of Nativity scenes.
By the Renaissance era, his iconographic repertoire had expanded to include his marriage to the Virgin Mary, proposing the saint as a model husband. In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, St. Joseph finally took center stage as a subject worthy of his own altarpiece, not as the factotum of the Holy Family but as an engaged, protective, loving father.
Spain did much to launch the image of Joseph as the World’s Greatest Dad, spurred by several saints who felt a special connection with the silent yet steadfast figure. Murillo, always ready to take on new iconographic challenges, took advantage of this shifting spirituality to revolutionize the portrayal of Joseph, resulting in some of the most inspiring images of fatherhood in the history of art.
Murillo’s St. Joseph as the Good Father
Murillo explored different paternal qualities—vigilance, devotion, playfulness, loyalty, and forgiveness—in each of his numerous paintings of St. Joseph. His striking 1665 altarpiece in Seville shows a larger-than-life Joseph towering over the viewer, standing next to the luminous Christ Child.
Typical of his style, Murillo arranged a few classical architectural fragments on one side, while leaving the rest of the space uncluttered to focus solely on the two figures. Jesus, perched on the ruins of an ancient altar, nestles close to Joseph while gazing serenely at the viewer, confident in his father’s protection. The mauve color of his robe and soft skin emphasize his humanity and vulnerability. Joseph shields the child with his body, looking warily in the distance, seemingly ready to whisk his son away at the first sign of danger. In the Bible, Joseph’s prompt reactions saved the infant Jesus by escaping the murderous rage of King Herod.
Murillo rejected the painterly precedent of portraying Joseph as an old, decrepit man, depicting him with dark flowing hair and strong youthful features bearing a striking resemblance to the mature Jesus. Murillo then transformed Joseph from virile defender into a doting father for a private patron who would have commissioned a more intimate version for domestic use. A smaller work from 1670 opens a window into the personal relationship of Joseph with his divine charge. As father of 11 children, Murillo mastered the art of rendering the pudgy flesh of infants, producing a cuddly Christ Child who appears ready to be taken into the arms of the viewer. Joseph contemplates the boy intently, eyelids lowered, lips slightly parted; he seems to delight in Jesus’s physical presence, absorbed in his golden curls, warm touch, and sweet scent.
At the same time, Joseph appears awed by the fact that this adorable infant is also the Messiah. Jesus places a flowering branch in Joseph’s hand, an allusion to the divine selection of this man to be the husband of Mary and the guardian of Christ. The wispy brushstrokes give the impression of spontaneous movement, as if this were a candid snapshot where Joseph, caught unawares, reveals the depth and intensity of his fatherly love.
Murillo, who lost his father and mother by the age of 10, practically invented the image of the Holy Family at home. While some of his versions showed the parents at work and the child at play, “The Holy Family With a Dog” from 1650 captures a moment of cheerful respite from the labors of the day.
In a spartan workshop, St. Joseph leaves his carpentry tasks for a moment to play with his son. Jesus, whose only indication of his exalted status is the blue and gold band around his waist and the intensified light on his face, teases a lapdog with a bird. A smile seems to play around Joseph’s lips as he points toward the patient pet, enjoying this quiet domestic moment.
Mary also pauses at her spinning to take in the scene, but as she looks at the finch in Jesus’s hand, symbol of his future passion, framed against the crossed wooden bars of her spindle, her mind seems to stray to more somber thoughts.
While Murillo portrayed St. Joseph as dark-haired and handsome, he added a few lines across his brow and around his eyes to indicate the passing of youth. Joseph’s life was spent in relative poverty, constantly working to sustain his family, and Murillo suggests the great dignity of a lifetime of sacrifice.
Murillo’s artistic studies of fatherhood were not limited to St Joseph. In the wake of the Spanish plague of 1649, Murillo painted six large canvases recounting the story of the Prodigal Son. This parable tells of a young man who demanded his inheritance while his father was still alive, only to squander it on raucous living. Reduced to poverty, shame, and starvation, he returned home hoping to join his father’s servants.
The star of the story is the father, who without rancor or recrimination welcomes his son home. Of the six scenes, the father features in three, openhandedly giving away his money to the ungrateful boy, dejectedly watching him depart, and, most powerfully, joyfully welcoming his destitute son. In this final panel, the family members stand in shadow as the boy, draped in rags, falls to his knees before the old man. Where the other family members, clad in bright apparel, remain in the shadows of the doorway, the old man, in his robe the color of earth, propels himself toward the boy. The Latin word for earth—“humus”—is the root of “humility,” one of the most prized virtues of the age. The father, with right on his side, who has enjoyed the respect and loyalty of all except his son, puts aside his pride to forgive his humiliated boy.
Murillo’s images, 400 years later, seem tailor-made for a modern Father’s Day. They are emblems of gratitude toward the men who faithfully support, serve, protect, and love their families no matter how difficult the circumstances.
Elizabeth Lev is an American-born art historian who teaches, lectures, and guides in Rome.