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The Death of Saint Joseph (1803)

William Blake

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‘The Death of Saint Joseph’ was painted by William Blake in 1803 using watercolour, graphite, and charcoal on wove paper. It depicts the death of Saint Joseph in the arms of his loving son and wife Jesus and Mary. There is little information about Joseph in the bible and no evidence of when and how his death occurred. Most biblical scholars believe it occurred before Jesus’ death due to the fact Joseph wasn’t present at the crucifixion. For this reason, many traditions hold that Joseph died in the arms of Mary and Jesus which has led the church to proclaim Joseph the patron saint of a ‘happy death’.

Blake's illustration portrays the ‘happy death’ with a ring of technicolour angels creating a rainbow over the three figures alluding to the bitter-sweet nature of the moment, a pathetic fallacy of the hope and despair and rain and shine nature of death, as Joseph leaves Mary and Jesus on Earth but joins God in heaven. Between the three figures and the arc of angels, Blake used line to create the impression of movement between the angels and the figures which suggests the movement of Joseph’s soul as it gradually transitions to heaven. The linear movement creates a sense of togetherness as the lines spread from the three figures to the arc of angels, creating a feeling of union and love as their spirits become one as Joseph ascends to heaven.

The three figures are painted in a white glow and whilst this symbolises purity and holiness, in Christianity white is also a symbol of the Virgin Mary and the immaculate conception, whereby Blake may be alluding to Jesus’ birth, presenting Joseph’s death as a full circle moment in which his task is complete and he can meet death with joy and satisfaction. His presentation of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in a white light symbolising the conception reflects his holy life through his holy death, showing how death for Joseph and others who live their life by God’s will is not a terrifying venture into the unknown but rather a gentle transition into the fullness of a life already begun.

Alice Dawson

Reviewed by Alice Dawson

Alice Dawson is an artist and writer based in London, currently completing a Masters in Sculpture at the Royal College of Art. Her work has recently been exhibited at Standpoint Gallery and Filet Project Space, with writing published in the Royal College of Art library. Through sculptural, written and moving image practices Alice engages with spiritual solutions to societal disorder and ecological destruction, whereby our spiritual connection to the natural world is fundamental to our healing.

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The Spiritual Arts Foundation
The Spiritual Arts Foundation is dedicated to promoting arts related projects that specifically demonstrate a vision of spirituality at their core. We represent all positive and life-affirming spiritual and religious beliefs.
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