The Christian Heritage Centre


A Theology of the Family

22nd December 2022

A Theology of the Family: The Strange Case of the Bare Feet

Stefan Kaminski
Perugino - Adoration of he Magi
Perugino's Adoration of the Magi, in Citta' delle Pieve, Italy

Perugino’s Adoration of the Magi in Citta’ delle Pieve, Italy (as opposed to the one in Perugia) contains a curious detail which is easily overlooked at first glance. In the dim light of the small Oratory that houses this painting, the vibrant colours of the principal figures in the foreground pop out and create an almost 3D effect. The observer’s gaze is drawn across the breadth of the painting by the various garments of the ten or so persons that flank the child Jesus in the centre. One is conscious of the depth and activity that stretches away behind this first row of figures, but the colours readily draw the eye back to the primary scene. It is not easy for the eye to then drop down to the protagonists’ feet, which are very much where you expect them to be. By virtue of their sensibly-coloured footwear, they do not demand any particular attention: that is, until one notices that the feet of some of these important people are bare.

The feet that have most obviously exposed themselves to the elements are those of Mary and Joseph. Perhaps a nod to their humble state, in view of the bare-footed shepherds that hover in the background, and in contrast to the calced extremities of their noble visitors? The homogeneity of the garments across this front row of figures would suggest not. Closer examination reveals that one more of these principal figures is also bare-footed: the bearded gentlemen at the far right. Why should he not have worn some sandals on this visit?

If, by some astute observation (or perhaps at the prompt of a helpful guide), one compares this man with the discalced Holy Family, and then particularly with the figure of Joseph, one starts to notice some strange similarities: a perfect parallel in bodily posture, from the angle of the head down to the distribution of weight and position of the feet; an identical facial profile and features; a reflection of each other’s expression. The only distinguishing feature, other than the colour of the garments, is that the man’s beard is much fuller and longer, and is distinctly double-stranded.

The only clue that can be claimed with certainty is that this particular beard is clearly used by Perugino in other of his paintings on the figure of God the Father. If we are to suppose, then, that Perugino did indeed intend this figure as the Heavenly Father, one can also note the gold girdle around his waist – typically depicting sovereignty or royalty – and the celestial blue of his undergarment – a classical indicator of a spiritual being.

This striking relation between the figures of Joseph and God the Father immediately calls to mind St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (3:14-15). The painting appears to express precisely this: Jesus’ foster-faster, Joseph, is shadowed by the real Father, who manifests His presence discreetly in the background and at the same time somehow lends authority to the figure of Joseph. Joseph’s persona thus takes on a fuller sense when one realises that his fatherhood, though temporal, is exercised in the name of the Father.

Joseph, who plays such a strong, yet silent role before and through the infancy of Jesus, quietly disappears from the Gospels as the Christ emerges into the maturity of His humanity and the fullness of His divine mission. Yet his presence is a reminder that God the Son was not born into some extraordinary situation, even if His Incarnation was an extraordinary event. The Divine Saviour was inserted into the ordinary and regular pattern of the nuclear family – father and mother – surrounded by their extended family and relations.

Given the non-biological nature of Joseph’s fatherhood, one might ask whether there is any deeper meaning to his role than simply that of fostering the child and providing stability and support to the mother. Perugino, if we have interpreted his painting correctly, seems to very much think there is. And indeed, more authoritative support comes from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Their long genealogies trace Jesus’ ancestry through each generation from Adam through to Joseph, passing through the lineage of Abraham and his Israelite descendants, encompassing kings and prostitutes alike.

Fans of Tolkien will be all-too-familiar with those long pages in The Lord of the Rings that are preoccupied with tracing the lineage of Frodo Baggins, Aragorn or one of the Dwarves. Indeed, ancestry is an absolutely critical part of all Tolkien’s writings that tell the story of his fantasy world, beginning with its creation, as told in the Silmarillion, through several epochs until the ‘redemption’ of Middle-Earth with the defeat of Sauron and the destruction of the Ring of Power.

In his mythical vision of reality, Tolkien merely reflects what is divinely and humanly true; namely, that the human person is not an isolated ego, a self-defined construct, or a morally-autonomous being. The human person has an origin and a destiny, is given their existence and context, and is called to act for the concrete good of his neighbours.

Thus, at a legal and social level, Joseph’s importance is in providing Jesus with a crucial part of His human ‘identity’, through which He is inserted into a chain of parents and progeny. This is deliberately traced right back to its very origins, pointing us back to the Father, after whom every family is named. It similarly evokes future progeny, the generation of which is the primary purpose of the family. In the case of Christ, that progeny is potentially every person throughout human history, who through faith in Him, are all called as adopted children of the same Father.

The Church’s vision of the human family is thus grounded in the nuclear family for a good reason: the family is the context and means intended by God for the flourishing of humanity. God Himself assumed humanity in this context, and whilst He ‘only’ adopted an earthly father, the figure of Joseph speaks powerfully of the more important and fundamental reality that is true of every family. This is the same truth that St Paul is at pains to point out in his letter to the Ephesians, and has been recognised since the early Church Fathers: Fatherhood, properly speaking, is a reality that only belongs to God. God is Father of all because He is creator of all. In the same way that the very existence of every being depends on the supreme Existence, the fatherhood (as expressed in the complementary, generative power of both sexes) of the human person only and ever has any meaning as a reflection of and cooperation with the Divine Fatherhood.

Inserted into the specific strand of Joseph’s ancestry, the Holy Family raises the stakes for all human families. No longer is the family simply the font of earthly life, but it is now joined to the Divine project of Redemption. The human family not only remains a co-operator in the mystery of creation (to paraphrase St John Paul II), participating with God in the creation of human persons: it is now an embodiment of the mystical marriage between Christ and His Church, and its primary task is now to generate children for the Kingdom of God. As Perugino depicts so beautifully, human fatherhood is a task that is given by God, and answerable for to Him alone.

Events Talks

Communicating the Invisible [evening talk]

Communicating the Invisible:
Caravaggio's Spirituality
[evening talk]

20 February, 7:30pm [2020]

The Catholic foundations of Caravaggio's work

Caravaggio’s genius is widely recognised, but its real roots are often overlooked. Explore the relationship of the physical and spiritual worlds in Caravaggio’s painting.

The figure of Caravaggio as revolutionary in the history of western painting is one with which our own generation feels a particular affinity. The re-recognition of his genius some fifty or sixty years ago has even led some to consider him as a twentieth century painter, though he died in the year 1610. Many of our contemporaries delight to re-write history and to remold historical figures in a way which reinforces ideas of today. The real genius of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, though, is firmly rooted in the world he inhabited, the earthly and the spiritual. His unique ability to communicate a deeply held Christian faith, because it is less fashionable today, is even more revolutionary than many of his modern admirers might allow. 
About the speaker:
Rev L J R Daley, priest of the Liverpool Archdiocese, holds a License from the Pontifical Atheneum of Sant’Anselmo, Rome, graduated from the Accademia delle Belle Arti of Rome, and is currently of parish priest of Saint John the Evangelist, Burscough, Lancashire. 

£5 (tickets at the door)

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Events Talks

European Art through English Eyes [evening talk]

European Art
through English Eyes
[evening talk]

23 January, 7:30pm [2020]

John Ruskin's Travels on the Continent

Explore the Christian spirit of European art with a fascinating and colourful tour of the continent, through the eyes of John Ruskin

John Ruskin, the polymathic Victorian art and social critic, started out as an Evangelical chauvinist, celebrating the works of a school of British artists he described as his “Modern Painters”, especially J.M.W.Turner. But his developing interest in European architecture and art, centrally in Venice, challenged his provinciality and opened his imagination to the treasures of the Catholic Middle Ages and the society from which they had sprung. Throughout his winding and contradictory history of religious faith and doubt he persisted in arguing his belief that “all great art is praise”, and seeing it with the eyes of “faith and intense Christian feeling”.

About the speaker:

Keith Hanley studied English at Lincoln College, Oxford (MA, B.Litt). At Lancaster (Ph.D) he founded the Wordsworth Centre, which he directed from 1988-2000, and initiated the transfer of the John Howard Whitehouse Ruskin Collections from Bembridge school, directing the Ruskin Centre at Lancaster from 2000-2008. From 1994 he has co-edited the quarterly Nineteenth Century Contexts: An Interdisciplinary Journal (published by Routledge since 2002), currently with Alex Wettlaufer, University of Texas at Austin. He has held posts at a number of European universities and at Notre Dame, Indiana.


£5 (tickets at the door)

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Articles Media

We appreciate true beauty when we contemplate the divine glory of God

Friday 2nd March 2018

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

We appreciate true beauty when we contemplate the divine glory of God

Ilyas Khan, KSG

If there is a purpose in Art, it is that it serves to simplify not to complicate. This is one of the lessons of the greatest theologians of modern times, Hans Urs Von Balthasar.

Pope Benedict, amongst others, considers Balthasar to be the very greatest of Catholic intellects since Thomas Aquinas.

Described by De Lubac as “perhaps the most cultured man of his time”, Balthasar’s life spanned the course of the 20th century and his work, by any measure, is immense in volume and in influence.

The centre piece of his theology is an exhilarating trilogy that was written over the course of 30 years, covers 15 volumes and extends to over 10,000 pages.

The first part of this trilogy, Glory of the Lord, is a study of Balthasar’s renewal of foundational values as seen by an approach to aesthetics framed through the prism of the classic transcendental values – Truth, Beauty and Goodness.

My own path to Hans Urs Von Balthasar emerged through the age-old debate of “reason vs revelation”. I was 18 when I first came across his writings at Netherhall House, and too ill formed in my philosophical grounding to take more than a superficial ‘dividend’ from those readings.

As my career has progressed – I spend most of my time in science, particularly mathematics and quantum computing – what once were sharp edges have become softened – but in wholly unexpected ways.

Hans urs Von Balthasar

Balthasar brooks no compromise, and this certainty has helped me to see that there was, is and ever shall be Christ at the core of everything that we try, in our own way, to rationalise. From the very largest to the infinitesimal, God is the only constant.

Balthasar provides a beautiful counterpoint to the 19th century philosophy of “L’art pour l’art”– itself an inevitable outcome of what he describes as the anthropocentric tendency of Western thinking since the time of the renaissance – where objectivity and form drift away from each other.

Vast industries have been built on the back of this shallow tradition where artists, galleries and curatorial staff all jostle in an echo chamber where they tell each other how wonderful they all are.

Balthasar draws a line in the sand, as it were, and brings us back to the patristic approach of the Church fathers, with an elegant pre-Thomist reminder of what the modern world has all but forgotten – that beauty (and art) can only be appreciated when it leads us to an appreciation of the splendour of God. “Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself – a world which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness.

“No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man.

“Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.”
Balthasar’s “line in the sand” goes deeper than reminding us of the indivisibility noted above. In the early stages of the first book of his trilogy, Balthasar focuses on Beauty and draws our attention to the fact that the aesthetics of beauty cannot possibly be understood unless we also understand that the role of beauty is to draw us to a deeper purpose; that there is no “form” of earthly beauty that can be truly beautiful unless it withstands this deeper scrutiny.

Madonna of The Edelweiss,c.1500 Photo: by permission of the Governors of Stonyhurst College

“The awareness of inherent glory gave inspiration to works of incomparable earthly beauty in the great tradition of the Church. But these works become suitable for today’s liturgy only if, in and beyond their beauty, those who take part are not merely moved to aesthetic sentiments but are able to encounter that glory of God to which the Creator wanted to lead such works.

“Those who hear only the beautiful and are moved only by that can have a quasi-religious experience – like the many who listen to Saint Matthew’s Passion on Good Friday – but they are deceived regarding the true meaning of what they are hearing.”

Balthasar’s position on the sacred within aesthetics is not to try and differentiate between liturgical or church art and ‘normal’ art. He avoids simplistic differences between, for instance, the beauty of a great painting, a Mozart concerto, or a poem.

Here, his views run contrary to the intuition of the modern world and are in stark contrast with the vested interest that has grown up and surrounds the so-called “Art world” in its broadest context.

As G K Chesterton said: “Every Artist knows that the form is not superficial but fundamental, that the form is the foundation. Every sculptor knows that the form of the statue is not the outside of the statue, but rather the inside of the statue, even in the sense of the inside of the sculptor. Every poet knows that the sonnet-form of the poem is not only the form, but the poem.”

This quote by Chesterton is a refreshing reminder of the depth that Balthasar refers to. All of us draw on the role of icons, beautiful liturgy and gorgeous vestments, but Balthasar states something much more fundamental.

His message is that beauty always has meaning and this meaning is credible only when the link with divine splendour is first and foremost. In fact it is the study and contemplation of questions such as this that I hope will be part of the activity that is made possible when Theodore House (part of The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst) is completed.

There is also an inherent warning in this uncompromising message. Beauty that enchants without leading us to an appreciation of God’s divine splendour is misleading and modern society, through the collective efforts of people who run and raise money for museums, the patronage of the rich and influential and curatorial zeal which places a premium on “L’art pour l’art”, takes us further away from our relationship with the only splendour that really matters – that of God. “When one experiences startling beauty (in nature or in art), what confronts us is overpowering, like a miracle, and only as a miracle can it be understood. It can never be tied down by the person having the experience. The appearance of its inner unfathomable necessity is both binding and freeing, for it is seen clearly to be the appearance of freedom itself.”

Only in this way, Balthasar says, can we unite the (necessary) subjectivity of our individual circumstances with an all encompassing objectivity that God provides. Art, after all, is merely human or earthly and even at its best can only hint at the splendour of the beauty that is God. After all “in the liturgy, everything is relative to and oriented towards God’s glory”

He goes on to say: “But whenever the relationship between nature and grace is severed …. then the whole of worldly being falls under the dominion of ‘knowledge’ and the springs and forces of love immanent in the world are overpowered and finally suffocated by science, technology and cybernetics …. a world in which art itself is forced to wear the mask and features of technique.”

The story of Christianity is ultimately the story of God’s love for mankind. Our Christian heritage reminds us of the power of that love, and in celebrating the beauty of that heritage we should not forget that beauty, for beauty’s sake, is merely a fragment of the whole.

When we start to chase beauty, and become drawn in the outward aesthetic, we participate in one of the failures of modern life.

This article provides a glimpse of Balthasar’s teaching. He wrote in equally direct, compelling and simple ways on many other subjects. Prayer, the structure of the Church, the sacred covenant that Christ Our Lord has made with mankind. He wrote about music, about literature, about history and is a towering influence in the modern Catholic Church.

I hope that for those who have yet to discover the beauty of his work, this article serves as a prompt for further reading.

Artistic beauty plays an important role for the mission of the Christian Hertiage Centre, such as in our iconography course

“Quia per incarnati Verbi mysterium nova mentis nostrae oculis lux tuae claritatis infulsit: ut dum visibiliter Deum cognoscimus, per hunc in invisibilium amorem rapiamur.”

 “Because through the mystery of the incarnate word the new light of your brightness has shone onto the eyes of our mind; that knowing God visibly, we might be snatched up by this into the love of invisible things.”

Ilyas Khan, KSG, is a Patron of the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst.

Articles Media

Stonyhurst Jacobite paintings recall the Catholic ‘kings over the water’

 May 2017

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Stonyhurst Jacobite paintings recall the Catholic ‘kings over the water’

Elizabeth Robinson

The extensive art collection at Stonyhurst College has been built up since the foundation of the school itself in St. Omers, France, in 1593. The collection includes works by Rubens,Turner, Dürer and Rembrandt. As might be expected in a Jesuit college, the art reflects Catholic religion and history. Stonyhurst owes most of its paintings to Fr Thomas Glover, SJ (1781-1849), the Jesuit agent for the English Province in Rome.

‘If all our missionaries would save up a few pounds annually, all their chapels and houses might be in a short time devotionally furnished’ he wrote, and his efforts at Stonyhurst College reflect his industrious gathering of art in Rome, including Flemish medieval diptychs, Italian Renaissance and baroque works.

The Alberoni Collection at Stonyhurst holds interesting pieces of Jacobite propaganda. Ten paintings were collected by Fr. Glover in the 1830s from the villa of Cardinal Giulio Alberoni (1664 -1752). Some of the paintings seem to have been given to him by the Stuarts in return for his support and organisation of the two Spanish-led Jacobite uprisings of 1719.


A painting of Stonyhurst by JMW Turner

These paintings include one by Benedetto Gennari commissioned by Queen Mary Beatrice of Modena of the infant James Francis Edward Stuart, Prince of Wales. This painting hung in the Queen’s bedchamber and shows the Prince as a strong and healthy baby holding a parakeet, in luxurious surroundings. The painting emphasised the difference between the exiled Stuart royal family and the childless English monarchs, William and Mary, who had ousted the Stuarts.

The Alberoni Collection also includes a full length portrait of the young Prince Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, which was painted by Antonio David in 1726. This is the first official portrait of the Prince, and depicts him in the clothing of an adult. The Bonnie Prince is gesturing towards a crown with the feathers of the Prince of Wales and the motto ‘Ich Dien’, portraying him as the rightful heir to the British throne. Many of the paintings at the college have been donated by various benefactors and old pupils of Stonyhurst, but there was also a collection found in situ at Stonyhurst when the pupils and staff arrived in 1794, having been forced to leave their college on the Continent because of the French Revolution.

Stonyhurst had been the property of the Shireburn and Weld families, and was donated to the Jesuits to form their new school. When the Jesuits and their pupils travelled from Liège in 1794, the Stonyhurst mansion had become dilapidated and empty of furnishings. However, entries in Lady Catherine Shireburn’s Inventory Book of Household Goods at Stonyhurst, dated 1713, describe paintings which were clearly left behind by the family. These are still in the college collections today, depicting biblical scenes such as the Nativity, the Circumcision and the Flight into Egypt.

Stylistically they date from the mid17th century and may well have been bought by sons of the Shireburn family during their time at St Omers. According to the Shireburn Inventory, 20 of these paintings were in the family chapel in 1713 and survive at Stonyhurst as a testament to the spiritual life of English Catholic families trying to live their faith under the government penalties of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. 

The painting known at Stonyhurst as The Jesuit Family Tree was acquired in London in August 1834 and contains some two hundred portraits of members of the Society of Jesus. It is described as a ‘Spanish painting’ by Fr Norris, bought from an art dealer who asked £140 for it , describing it to have come ‘from Martin Luther’s house and it was a representation of the First Reformers’. Fr. Norris and Mr Jenkins realised that it was a Jesuit painting, and managed to purchase it with a frame for the bargain price of £52.

The Benedetto Gennari painting of the young Prince James

The painting was commissioned by King John of Portugal, a great supporter of the Jesuit Missions. It depicts the saints and martyrs of the Society in the mid 17th century, including the English martyrs, Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell and Henry Walpole. The painting contains four large landscape scenes depicting Jesuits working in the missions fields of Europe, Africa, Asia and America. It is a powerful reminder of the global nature of the Jesuit missions in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Of great interest to Stonyhurst is the painting of the college by J M W Turner, painted after his visit to the college in 1799. This is the first known image of Stonyhurst, painted by Turner while he was producing drawings of Whalley Abbey for Dr. Whittaker’s History of the Parish of Whalley published in 1801. This watercolour of Stonyhurst was exhibited in London in 1832-33 at the gallery of Messrs. Moon, Boys and Graves in Pall Mall East. This painting is a fascinating record of the original Tudor house at Stonyhurst.

The work by Dürer

The Great Triumphal Car of the Emperor Maximilian I is a massive wood engraving that took the artist, Albrecht Dürer, ten years to create. It is part of a much larger work, never completed, which was intended to be around one hundred and seventy-seven feet long. The print, as it stands, shows the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I, processing in a public demonstration surrounded by the four Cardinal Virtues: Justice, Fortitude, Prudence and Temperance. A Winged Victory stands behind the emperor holding a laurel leaf crown with the titles of his military conquests in France, Hungary, Bohemia, Switzerland, Germany and Venice on its wings. 

The female driver of Maximilian’s car is titled Reason and she holds the reigns of Nobility and Power. The twelve powerful horses which pull the car reflect imperial virtues such as Speed, Providence and Gravity. The print was finally completed in 1522 and it was dedicated to Maximilian’s son, Charles V, the nephew of Queen Katherine of Aragon. There are over one hundred prints by Albrecht Dürer in the collections at Stonyhurst many of which are housed on the ‘Dürer Rocket’, a purpose built display case made by college carpenters in 1911.

The works described comprise a small part of the art collection at Stonyhurst which is used to help pupils and visiting researchers alike. It acts as a visual reminder of the global nature of Catholicism, and the teachings of the Church. The paintings act, as Fr Glover, hoped they would, as a devotional repository of inspirational art.

The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst is home to unique Catholic collections – items which draw on this country’s Christian story. This registered charity is currently creating accommodation for scholars, retreatants and those wishing to deepen their Christian Faith. Theodore House will be followed by a Visitors’ Centre which will enable parishes, schools and the general public to have even greater access to these amazing collections.

Visit www.christianheritage or contact to learn more