The Art of Theology: Seligmann 1888

We must ask, what does the art suggest to us?

What does it communicate about Him, speaking from a particular time and place?

What does it evoke through use of light and shadow, contrast and composition?

The Holy Family Image

“The Holy Family”, by Austrian painter Adelbert Franz Seligmann in 1888. The Church and the Fine Arts, Maus, 1960.

Through his painting “The Holy Family”, Adelbert Seligmann pries into the secret, unrecorded years of youthful Yeshua, depicting a scene in which He stands absorbed in thought in the midst of the family’s carpentry. It is a pensive, somber moment, heavy with potential energy; visual tension. The viewer is made to ask: what has captured His mind so? It is a family scene, softened by the presence of two other figures. Joseph is aged, Mary is hidden by shadow, and together they watch their son in quiet curiosity. He is growing, changing, before their eyes… a tender, young plant.

He wears white–purity, innocence, peace. It is a simple, single-layered garment, without dye and seemingly coarse. He is unprotected–He does not wear armor to shield Himself from humanity. He may be easily embraced… or wounded. Nor does He wear sandals. He has come as one of us, a creature first formed bare, out of clay–and to this He bears witness, connected to the earth without division.

He holds a scroll–does it contain words about the promised {and present} Messiah in body? The beams {and the nails} in the foreground do. They lay already crossed–dry beams prophesying of His coming suffering and separation. In the background, there is also a basin–does it speak of cleansing? The cleansing that He would bring, and is in Himself?

The shades of gradient that make up His youthful form in every way contrast Joseph, as a photograph’s negative. White garment v. dark garment, face in the light v. face in shadow, youthful hair v. the white hair of age… Figure casting shadow v. figure in shadow. He is different from His earthly father Joseph in every way, yet still belonging to him.

Seligmann’s “The Holy Family” shows Him to be both one of us and wholly other, a visual answer towing behind it many other questions through the waters of theological painting.

Did He imagine He heard a faint, heavenly refrain’s echo as He walked home from the synagogue that day?

Was He contemplating all that laid before Him, feeling the weight of it more every passing day?

Was His infinite knowledge somehow becoming increasingly known to Him, the Father revealing more to Him in moments like this?

The time period of the painting may reveal: Why is Mary so hidden and shadowed from the light, from the viewer, her face barely traceable? Perhaps it is evidence of a protestant desire to cloak this Mary who has been so heralded and visible in the Roman Catholic iconography. Perhaps too, the prominent cross beams {they are closest to the viewer in the foreground} are residual from the Roman Catholic theme of the visible cross, always connecting Jesus to solemnity and His death.


2 thoughts on “The Art of Theology: Seligmann 1888

  1. Dearest Kelly, I enjoyed our Skype/phone visit yesterday so very much.

    You can’t imagine how much your analysis of this picture means to me. Without your explanation, I hadn’t grasped what this depicted on any level. Where it was, who the others in the pic were, the barefoot connection to the earth, the pensive mood, even the placement of the wood!

    I am quite appalled at the richness of this work you have opened to me.

    I desperately need such a teacher at my elbow to walk me through your art, so I can see your heart this way.

    Love, Grandma

    Sent from my iPad



  2. Kelly, your analysis is excellent, line by line. You really intuit this stuff! To me, Joseph appears perplexed. What’s in Jesus’ hand is a scroll not a saw or piece of wood. This is the ’emerging’ Jesus that seems to baffle his parents. Maybe Marry is starting to mourn. The sense is that he’s been standing there for some time…in several worlds.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


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