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Two interpretations of the dream in the Basilica and at the entrance to the Pia Unione

by Don Lorenzo Cappelletti

The so-called "Marriage of the Virgin" is followed, as the second scene of the Josephite cycle, which unfolds on the windows of the left nave of the Basilica of San Giuseppe, the representation of a dream of Saint Joseph (362 x 136 cm). As we know, in the Gospel of Matthew there are four dreams of Saint Joseph (see Mt 1,20; 2,13; 2,19; 2,22).

The first of them is represented here. «This is how Jesus Christ was born: his mother Mary, being betrothed to Joseph, before they went to live together, found herself pregnant by the work of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her husband, since he was a just man and did not want to accuse her publicly, thought of repudiating her in secret. However, while he was considering these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said to him: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary, your bride, with you. In fact the child that is generated in her comes from the Holy Spirit; she will give birth to a son and you will call him Jesus: in fact he will save his people from their sins”» (Mt 1,18-21).

The composition, given the elongated shape of the window, obviously develops entirely vertically. In the lowest part, sitting in an interior, Saint Joseph is shown having fallen asleep with his arms folded and his head bent backwards. This position makes his closed eyes seem to "look" in a dream, quite naturally, at what is above his head: the angel who, hovering at half height, with his index finger pointing upwards, points to him the Virgin Mary; she is shown kneeling in smaller dimensions, within a cloud, with her hands clasped and her eyes lowered in an act of humility, while she is hit by two beams of golden light that emerge from a round, in the center of which stands the symbolic dove of the Holy Spirit. 

It is interesting to reflect on the iconographic means that allowed the quoted passage from the Gospel of Matthew to be expressed, so that it was perfectly intelligible through this simple figurative composition. First of all, the size and placement of the characters clearly show the two different levels of the action. While Saint Joseph and the angel have larger and equal dimensions, showing in the foreground what is currently taking place indoors, the smaller dimensions of the Virgin Mary - who appears, beyond a curtain, in the sky, within a small cloud of separation that distinguishes it from what happens in the foreground - they say that the content of the angel's message has already occurred in a spatial and temporal "elsewhere", which now manifests itself in a dream to Joseph. Furthermore, while Saint Joseph and the angel are multicoloured, the Virgin is represented in an almost monochrome shade slightly streaked with the gold of the Holy Spirit, indicating that she is not present except in the angel's message.

The stained glass window, offered by Albina Rosina in 1932, maintains the neo-Renaissance stylistic characteristics of the others produced in the XNUMXs by the Bavarian firm Franz Mayer & Co. One of these characteristics is the "grotesque" frame, a decorative motif so called because it was found and copied by Renaissance artists in their "cave" explorations, that is, in the enormous imperial residences of ancient Rome, which had been buried for centuries and which they were amazed to rediscover between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries; the "candelabra", which we talked about in the commentary on the "Marriage of the Virgin" (see The Holy Crusade in honor of Saint Joseph 3/2022, page 24), are nothing more than a particular type of "grotesque" where fake candelabras dominate. 

The accounting books of Franz Mayer & Co. allow us to trace who in 1932 negotiated the purchase of this stained glass window in a single solution, as well as the previous one (the "Marriage of the Virgin") and the subsequent one (the "Nativity" ). He was the then director (1927-1932) of the Primary Pious Union of the Transit of St. Joseph, a Guanellian originally from the Canton of Lucerne, in German-speaking Switzerland: Walter, or Gualtiero Disler (1890-1938), who had entered the Congregation of the Servites of charity in 1912 and who was able to easily deal with Franz Mayer & Co., not only because he spoke German, but also because he had a degree in Theology acquired in Rome, at the Gregorian: two characteristics that certainly qualified him to follow with authority the question. 

Even if there is no documentation in this regard, a previous negotiation for another stained glass window which is now in the access corridor to the Pia Unione probably also dates back to him, perhaps an early sample always having as its subject Saint Joseph who dreams and which probably it turned out satisfactory; Disler, in fact, was director of the Pia Unione previously between 1919 and 1925. Since this window has the same dimensions (362 x 136 cm) as the windows located along the naves of the Basilica of S. Giuseppe, it could be hypothesized that it was the destination originally conceived also for this window. The trademark says it also comes from Franz Mayer & Co. of Munich, although the strange French term "Baviere" can be read on the frame. In the company's photo album, a drawing by Karl Wurm (1893-1951) is preserved, which certainly formed the basis of this stained glass window. Unfortunately, the date of the sketch cannot be specified, but it could date back to the early twenties of the last century. Confirming this is the vaguely Art Nouveau style of this window, different from the other neo-Renaissance windows of the 1883s produced by Franz Mayer & Co. and which, again on the basis of the documentation preserved by the company, date back to another Munich artist: Richard Holzner (1958-XNUMX). 

In this case the theme represented is not immediately evident. The only actors: a bearded Saint Joseph, who has fallen asleep with his right hand holding his head tilted forward, and the angel who, above him, with his index finger pointing upwards, points out something to him in a dream of unspecified. One can imagine that this is the same as Saint Joseph's first dream, and that therefore the angel's call is not to fear taking Mary with him. The scene, in fact, set under a portico that serves as a laboratory, where Saint Joseph is surrounded by the tools of his work (clamp, planes, saw, chisels, files, rasps, boards, basket, shavings...), tells us about Nazareth; and of Nazareth in a static situation, one might say, because there is no trace of the child or the Virgin or of the possible journey to or from Egypt. 

We were saying that, compared to the stained glass window from 1932, which depicts the dream of Saint Joseph along the left side nave of the Basilica, the style in this one is different. The choice of non-traditional colours, both for the androgynous angel with a golden dress resembling an oriental robe, and for Saint Joseph, dressed in the colors normally used for the Virgin and Jesus; the attempt at clarification in the rendering of the context and landscape; the geometric frame and not in the form of a "grotesque": these are all elements that speak of a modernizing and imaginative trend typical of the Art Nouveau style. 

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