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Wit, Jacob de - VM - Robert Schillemans

Jacob de Wit: Earthly and Heavenly Trinity

Depictions of the Family of Jesus

by Robert Schillemans

A relaxed family is approaching us. It could be an advertisement for the Western nuclear family, consisting of father, mother and child, walking together in a loving togetherness. But even if that is what is here, it is at the same time much more. First of all it is important to see that it is ‘the Holy Family’ that is depicted here. Husband, wife and child – though from the starting point of Christendom and theology we should say: Jesus, Mary and Joseph. No matter how familiar we are with such a way of picturing the Holy Family, it has but a short history. For a long time the family of Jesus was pictured in a different way. In earlier times Jesus was a part of a Holy Kinship, later he was part of a constellation where he sits on Mary’s lap, while Mary herself is leaning on the lap of her mother Anne (Virgin and Child with Saint Anne).

Holy Kinship

In the Holy Kinship Jesus was part of a large family, where women are pre-eminent. At the centre was grandmother Anne, who married three times and had three daughters who were all named Mary. That was how medieval theologians sought to explain the confusing details in the Bible about Jesus’ brothers and sisters’ family relationships. In a painting in the Museum Catherijneconvent in Utrecht, the Netherlands, it is made clear how the familial lines ran. The men (without halo) are standing behind the wall and the women (with halo) are in front. Anne (mother of Mary) with Mary and Jesus are in the centre, on the left is Mary Cleophas with her children and to the right is Mary Salome with her two sons. Behind the wall we also see Elisabeth with her son John the Baptist. Every contemporary large family that looks different than the father-mother-child model can find its religious reflection here. Picturing the holy family this way in late medieval times eventually came to an end, especially because it did not correspond with developing notions of womanly chastity. Legend held that grandmother Anne had three marriages that could not be harmonized with this.

Virgin and Child with Saint Anne

The Holy Kinship disappeared, but its core continued: Jesus was pictured with his mother and grandmother (most famously by Leonardo da Vinci in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne in the Louvre, Paris). Families where the father is absent and the youngest generation is raised by women can be linked to this depiction mode.

Later again, when Saint Anne disappeared completely, Joseph came to fulfill an important role. At first he was pictured as an old man, leaning on a stick, keeping himself apart while the kings and their retinue came to worship Jesus. Joseph was not involved in the conception and this was made understandable with the concept of an aged man. But the nuclear family demanded an active man, one who could keep and protect his wife and child with his work as a carpenter. This could not be expected from an elderly, grey-bearded man. That is why Joseph eventually was made to look younger and more vigorous, while also receiving a role in nurturing the child. In this way the nuclear family, consisting of man, woman and child, gained prominence in the West. The family walking together, with which I began, is a beautiful example of this.

In essence, however, the representation above is not the earthly – horizontally pictured – nuclear family. Vertically, above Jesus, God the Father and the Holy Spirit are pictured, which transforms the walking family into a representation of a theological dogma. After all, Jesus is the pivot in the constellation of the earthly and heavenly Trinity. Thus the painting shows the concept of both the human and the divine nature of Jesus.

The Holy Family as we know it now, is a formula to depict the family context of Jesus. No matter how well-known, it has only existed a short time. History shows that there are many more models with which to compare contemporary forms of family life.


1. Jacob de Wit: Earthly and Heavenly Trinity, 1723. Museum Ons´ Lieve Heer op Solder, Amsterdam, NL.

2. Master of Liesborn: Holy Kinshipca 1480, panel, 130 x 92 cm. Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, NL.

3. Unknown artist: Virgin and Child with Saint Annemedieval, Roman Catholic Church at Hoensbroek, NL.

Jacob de Wit (1695-1754) is the best-known Amsterdam painter from the first half of the 18th century. He painted altarpieces for the Catholic hidden churches in Amsterdam. He produced the Earthly and Heavenly Trinity for a barn church dedicated to Saint Willibrord (658-739). He also did many ceiling paintings in the canal-side houses in Amsterdam, as well as overdoor [supraporte] pieces and complete rooms. His greatest and best-known work is in de ´Moses Hall´ of the Town Hall (the present-day Palace on the Dam in Amsterdam). De Wit was especially famous for the way he could suggest sculpture with paint (the so-called ´witjes´ or white monochrome paintings). The most beautiful examples of these can be seen in the same Palace on the Dam in Amsterdam.

Robert Schillemans is curator of Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder in Amsterdam, NL.

ArtWay Visual Meditation February 10, 2019