By Adrian Luther-Smith
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The scene presents a very homelike atmosphere, with St. Joseph looking lovingly down upon the young Christ, as a father upon his son. The work has a feeling of intimacy difficult to find in any other artist of this period. Though the subject is quite different, Romanino's Saint Matthew and the Angel of 1521 in the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista, Brescia (fig. 60) appears tobe the forerunner ofHonthorst's picture. Romanino's painting is illuminated by a candle held in the hand of a wingless angel.
Bassano's Christ sits hunched over in much the same position as Honthorst's. It was, in all probability, a scene such as this which helped Honthorst to arrive at his rendition ofthe theme. Mter following Honthorst's steady development towards realism accentuated by artificial lighting, one might imagine that he would continue in this same direction. However, a consistent and clear-cut evolutionsuch as this did not occur. Honthorst vacillated between two opposing styles in the same painting, apparently finding it difficult to make a final choice.
1 He was renowned for his particular kind of night scenes painted on copper to accentuate the light and dark effects. " 2 The combination ofrealism and chiaraseuro was certainly not invented by Caravaggio, nor must it be identified exclusively with him. Honthorst had been exposed to both of these characteristics before his trip to Italy, for they were part of a lang tradition in Northern Europe. Therefore, Honthorst did not have to journey to Italy in order to discover realism and chiaroscuro, but it was indeed necessary for him to travel to Rome in order to see Caravaggio's revolutionary interpretation ofthese elements.