Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen

Christ in the House of his Parents

Christ in the House of his Parents

John Everett Millais (1829-1896). The Tate Gallery. London. 1850.

Little is known of the young years of Christ before he started his public life. Luke only said that the child grew in maturity and wisdom. Nevertheless, painters took up as subject the young Jesus as a boy together with his family. Jesus is often shown with Mary and Joseph in their home in Nazareth. Joseph may be teaching the child his profession of carpenter. The English Pre-Raphaelites turned frequently to the theme because it had not so often been used before. It was part of their innovation, the surprise they wanted to impress on the viewers of their art, and of course also part of the Romantic revival of religious themes that had occurred all through Europe in the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The Pre-Raphaelite movement was founded during the winter of 1848 to 1849. It consisted of a core of three artists: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt. The most independent artist was Millais, the most romantic and extravagant was Rossetti, and the most religious William Holman Hunt. Hunt stayed the most true to the style of painting of the group. He worked painstakingly as the first fresco painters on a substrate of wet white paint on top of which he put his colours. These paintings have a brilliance that has remained quite unique in the history of pictorial art.

John Everett Millais exhibited in 1850 a religious painting in the Royal Academy of London that he called ‘Christ in the House of his Parents’, but which became known thereafter as the ‘Carpenter’s Shop’ since it was not accepted as a scene of the life of Jesus. The picture was highly criticised because the Holy Family was represented as ordinary people at work. No less than Charles Dickens wrote with very denigrating phrases on the ‘Carpenter’s Shop’ in his ‘Household Word’, a weekly journal. He wrote that the boy was ‘hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed’. The kneeling woman was ‘horrible in her ugliness. She would stand out as a monster in the vilest cabaret of France or the lowest gin shop of England’. And so on. Dickens said nobody paid attention to the old woman who’ had mistaken the shop for a tobacconist’s next door’. But Dickens wrote further that ‘the shavings strewn on the carpenter’s floor were admirably painted’. This was one of the most eminent diatribes ever passionately written against the work of art of a new artist.

The carpenter’s shop is dirty and poor. Wood curls are everywhere on the ground. Which is quite normal since Joseph is planing a door with a carpenter’s apprentice and a workshop of the first years certainly must have looked like that. But the representation is not very respectful for the image of Jesus as God. Sheep are outside, quite close to the shop; a dove is sitting on a ladder, inside. Birds are drinking from a dish on a window-still. All not too tidy. Showing such a plain scene was regarded as close to sacrilege. And the picture was not just religious sacrilege. Around 1850 artistic critics had a very academic view of painting, rooted in the traditional ways of representation and in long-established formal aesthetical concepts of beauty. Representing every-day life was all right for the seventeenth century Dutch painters, but not anymore, and not for scenes of the life of Jesus. The plain image of the common house of a worker was unacceptable for nineteenth century Victorian society. The painting of Millais was also an artistic sacrilege. Attacks were virulent in the press. The painting was found to be ugly and uninspiring.

Millais depicted Jesus in a white night shirt, with red hair. Mary is an ordinary worker’s woman with the humble shawl tied over her hair and with a wrinkled forehead. Grandmother Anne had to help in the shop and she also is shown as a very humble, old lady. Joseph is not the old, dignified leader of the family but a simple man who has to earn a living by working through all day and who clearly needs all the help he can get from his family. If the help is in the form of a young boy holding a pail to throw water over the ground, Joseph will accept it gratefully. Everybody needs to work in this household in order to survive. The figures are not in beautifully curved poses, except maybe the knelt Mary. The figures of Joseph, Joseph’s assistant on the other side of the door and the boy holding the pail are all imagined in movement, but the movements look unnatural and angular. They are like poises that only artificially give an impression of movement. Finally, all figures and certainly Joseph are thin if not to say emaciated.

The picture seems simple. Yet it is full of symbols. Jesus shows his hand to Mary. He has hurt himself at a nail, maybe the nail that is still in the table close by. The nail has brought a wound in the middle of the hand and Jesus holds that hand high as if in a testimony. This is a symbol of Jesus’ future Passion since later he would be nailed to the cross, nails going through the palm of his hands in ancient medieval representations. Millais’ painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850 with a quotation from Zacharias: ‘And one shall say unto him, What are these Wounds in thy hands? Then he shall answer: Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends’.

There are more symbols. The tools of the carpenter’s shop may be the instruments of Jesus’ Passion. The boy bringing the water must be John the Baptist, always associated with water. The dove represents peace and love. The sheep outside are maybe a reference to the image of the Lamb of God, soon to be offered on an altar. Finally, the image of Mary and Jesus is a reference to many pictures of the Madonna and Child. So, Millais introduced very many symbols in the medieval style in his work, linking modernity to romantic nostalgia for the past style of art.

The painting has a strong, balanced composition. Anne and Joseph wear a red cloak and shirt whereas the helpers are bare-breasted, a double symmetry forming strong unity. The long, horizontal door on the common wooden carpenter’s bench also forms a counter-weight to the vertical figures. The concept of these rude straight horizontal and vertical lines in the composition was a surprising novelty as compared to the earlier fluid lines of paintings of Baroque. The sheep, birds and dove add a tender touch in the same strip of the painting, to an otherwise cold and artificial scene. So, the picture was also an exercise of equilibrium of composition and an innovation of representation.

John Everett Millais lived and worked in the second half of the nineteenth century. Yet, here were painters who could still invent a new iconography, new images and views on a story almost two millenniums old. The Pre-Raphaelites were innovators, as well in the use of colour as in their imagery. Their task was difficult because they applied the old subject matter and proved that other fresh, new visions could still be found in that. This needed a very vivid imagination. They succeeded a remarkable tour de force and thus revived spiritual representation in English art. There is a lesson here. Art and certainly figurative art can be renewed endlessly. A view on the Holy Family like this had never been seen before, yet this was a truly honest, humble and realistic picture. Millais broke with all traditions with this ‘Carpenter’s Shop’ and many disliked what they saw, instead of applauding a new vision on Christ. The Pre-Raphaelites were immediately famous with these kinds of pictures, though probably not in a way they had imagined. They achieved a reputation of iconoclasts, of angry young men. They would live up to their reputation with many other pictures, achieving entirely new images of the world, which now seem fresh and surprising instead of revolting. It would take some time, but in the end the Pre-Raphaelites were recognised as being the most important movement of innovation in representation and means of painting of the second half of the nineteenth century in England. Millais received a knighthood for it. He would be known henceforth as Sir John Everett Millais.

Millais brought the Holy Family down from its mystical pedestal of adoration symbol. Scenes of the lives of Jesus and of the Virgin Mary were always images to be venerated. They represented in Christianism the highest form of spirituality in the visual arts. This veneration had been sacrosanct throughout the past centuries. Millais, as of the other Pre-Raphaelites Hunt and Rossetti in their early religious pictures, did away with the old forms and iconography of veneration. However, they were too much the aesthetes and too much venerators of art itself to draw religious themes such as the Holy Family in vulgarity. The presentation of the ‘Carpenter’s shop’ by the surprise of the angularity of its form, the geometrical frugality of its composition, the surprise of the handling of the subject, and the soft colours in the brilliance of the painting, found a new language of expression. This did not abase the subjects but simply introduced a new, more powerful aesthetic. Furthermore, Millais’ representation contained as dense symbolism as the medieval primitive art. The idealist art that was reborn in England – or continued, since a long tradition of idealist art existed in this country – was aimed at still more spirituality. The Pre-Raphaelites brought a revived interest in the meaning of ideas and their expression as symbols. The young Millais, Rossetti and Hunt did not abolish or ridiculed Christian themes but on the contrary, by reviving them accentuated once more the spiritual ideas of Christianity and thereby strengthened them.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
Book Next Previous

Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.