Images of Holy Family Endure as Art

Holy Family, Modern Round

Small Nativity with TreeIbrahim Giacaman puts forward a new Holy Family design in dark-grained local olive wood nearly every year, one of his latest being the family nestled under a star. All of it is carved from one block of wood and drawn from his imagination.

He doesn’t have to look far to think about nativities.

From the porch of his family’s shop, Il Bambino in Bethlehem, you can see the Church of the Nativity, where tradition holds that Christ was born in a cave underneath the bascilica’s ancient, stone walls. On Giacaman’s store shelves are, literally, thousands of sculptures depicting that moment. With shepherds. Sheep. Wise men. Cattle. Angels. The mother. The baby. The man, Joseph, who scripture says, was told by an angelic messenger in a dream to care for the boy.
Today, he’s talking about the most intimate portrait: The family itself.
“Always, always Joseph was with her in the cave,” says Giacaman. “Mary gave birth in Bethlehem … in the manger, in the grotto. And the nativity is the symbol of Bethlehem.”

But the depiction of the Holy Family itself has changed with time and with theological wrangling.

The earliest carvings of the nativity are found on tombs and in catacombs – and much of the emphasis is placed on the Wise Men, identical figures who convey the wider witness of this newborn child beyond the Jewish world. While the presence of the mother and child are givens, the depiction of Joseph changes both in its importance to the religious imagery and the narrative itself.

He’s visible, but he is often older, scuttled to the side. At times, he looks disgruntled. Or, he may be making soup, or doing something extraneous to the unfolding drama around him.

Which, according to historian Robin Jensen of Vanderbilt University, is exactly the problem. Artists, theologians and other religious often found him to be extraneous since he’s not the father of Jesus, and, is unrelated to the story of redemption, although he does lead the donkeys that carry Mary to Bethlehem, and, deliver the mother and baby to the safety of Egypt just before Herod begins murdering Bethlehem’s baby boys to eliminate any risks to his throne.

“Very often in the earliest art, Mary is seated in a chair, holding the baby. There is somebody standing behind her chair, and, it appears to be the Holy Spirit,” says Jensen, noting that, theologically, the Holy Spirit is the infant’s actual father. “That’s part of the complication.” The elevated place of Mary in the early church – and especially in the late Medieval period – was undisputed both in doctrine and in popular piety.

It is in the 15th and 16th centuries, Jensen says, that Joseph re-appears, often as a younger, stalwart figure. And by the 17th Century, Joseph has an established place within the first Christian family, perhaps a response to Protestantism, balancing out the devotion to Mary, and, creating a domestic scene for Christian families to model.

Giacaman agrees that both carvings of the Holy Family and the Madonna and Child are classics for Catholic pilgrims, which is why he keeps developing new expressions of both. When his workload is down, he sits with a pencil, some paper, a single block of wood and his carving tools. Some days, he says, nothing comes to life in the wood.

But other days, it does. He’s able to see something new in the grain, another facet of this story that is so distinctive to Bethlehem.
His latest sculptures are modern, with the family almost cuddled against one another, bound together by sweeping curves and graceful limbs. Seldom does he bother to carve a face, but rather, leaves it to the individual imagination to see the mother and father as sad, happy, worried, searching, all aspects of the journey of faith.

Like most faithful folks, he turns to the familiar story to see something fresh and alive. “Each time,” he says, “I try to make something new.”