I am in the process of reviewing a series of titles published by Saint Joseph’s University Press on the subject of St. Joseph, the Holy Family, and devotional art and spirituality. In reviewing these titles I have been overwhelmed by the erudition and eloquence of the authors. Writing in an accessible manner is not second nature to most academics, but in this case I find their style sufficiently intelligible to the non-specialist, providing that they are willing to take their time.
I would like to recommend the following titles:
The Holy Family as Prototype of the Civilization of Love (edited by Fr. Joseph F. Chorpenning, O.S.F.S.).
Inspired by an art exhibition co-sponsored by Saint Joseph’s University, these contain informative articles on topics addressed by the exhibition. The artwork is exquisite, and the accompanying articles are very detailed and specific. The footnotes are extensive and helpful for clarifying important points within the article. This is primarily a book for specialists, but as exhibit catalogs go, it is quite accessible to the layperson. The cover is a stunning color painting of the Holy Family from Peru.
St. Joseph in Italian Renaissance Society and Art: New Directions and Interpretations (Carolyn C. Wilson).
This is perhaps the most highly academic study of the books I reviewed. It focuses primarily on artistic and historical considerations rather than devotional ones. This hard bound book has outstanding b/w and color pictures, with copious footnotes. I enjoyed it because of its knowledgeable and confident tone. It does not read as polemical, yet it freely disagrees with other authorities. This book may be for enthusiasts only, but the writing is sufficiently clear for laypersons to at least enjoy the pictures and selectively read parts of the book that are perhaps more practical in orientation, specifically with respect to historical considerations. As the subtitle indicates, it goes into the minutiae with a passion.
A look at the background of Dr. Wilson perhaps helps explain its erudition and finesse. She is a graduate of the Shipley School and Wellesley College, with a Ph.D. From NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. My personal bias, which i cannot substantiate empirically or objectively, is that learned female art critics from from private liberal arts colleges bring a unique sensitivity to their commentary. Another outstanding art professor who has produced two programs for The Learning Company, Dr. Catherine Scallen, also comes to mind in this regards.
I don’t know enough about the subject to be coherent, but I do know that I sense some differences in the way the sexes approach art, but I would not divide it neatly between analytical and aesthetic approaches. In my opinion, women bring an interesting aesthetic appreciation to art criticism. Dr. Wilson’s style is down-to-earth and approachable, despite being erudite, but I don’t think I would dispute any of her conclusions in class! It is nice to read a book where the critic’s love for the art comes through along with her understanding of it.
The Holy Family in Art and Devotion (edited by Fr. Joseph F. Chorpenning, O.S.F.S.).
This contains outstanding articles on the subject by highly respected scholars. These were published on the occasion of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the inclusion of the feast of the Holy Family in the Catholic liturgical calendar.
I am a big fan of compendiums of articles because there is usually very little verbiage present. The word count limitations won’t allow it. However, authors usually have sufficient space to make and argue their point coherently, without delving excessively into minutiae that would be beyond the comprehension and interest of laypersons. In this case the articles are rock solid and make the book more like a concise compendium. While some of the topics may be highly specialized, the writing remains accessible.
Joseph of Nazareth Through the Centuries (edited by Fr. Joseph F. Chorpenning, O.S.F.S.).
This is a comprehensive historical survey of different aspects of Joseph’s personality, role, and the devotion that evolved. Authors of various disciplines are engaged, making this like somewhat of an amalgamated college course, a literary “best of”, so to speak. In any event, this 7 x 10 inch, 356 page textbook contains not only outstanding articles, but interesting footnotes and helpful bibliographies. Color and b/w pictures are interspersed tastefully throughout.
Why do I find the books to be consistently excellent? The editor is a master of the subject who writes well, is well-connected and well-read in the field, and is willing to produce books that are aesthetically as well as intellectually pleasing, even at significant cost.
Imprints often bear the distinctive mark of their publisher. Fr. Joseph Chorpenning is an elite scholar on the subject who has a passion for it as well. Most important, he doesn’t allow the books to become so academic that they are incomprehensible to the informed non-specialist. Since he is a member of a Salesian order, whose patron is the patron saint of writers and (unofficially) laypersons, St. Frances de Sales, himself a lucid and accessible writer, this is not surprising.]
What I found most commendable and unusual for such a collection is the lack of overlap and duplication. Even though similar topics are treated, you don’t get the impression of a rehashing of material. Each of the articles and books are sufficiently distinct, even when the individual topics are similar. These really are textbooks that can also be used for private reading. Given the quality of the editing, scholarship, and presentation, I can unhesitatingly recommend all of them.
If I went into specifics on each book, given all the angles and aspects addressed, I am afraid that the average reader would get “blogged down.” I would much rather you check these out of the library, most likely through inter-library loan, or order them from Saint Joseph’s University Press so that you can see for yourself. You will likely find, as I did, that the books are a bit overwhelming — so much content to accompany the artwork, but worthwhile material that stretches both the mind and the aesthetic sense.
As mentioned in a previous review, I suggest the use of the reading practice of lectio divina with these. Read a short section, stop when a concept, image, or application touches you, and mull over it. Like the great classics of antiquity, there is enough to nibble on in order to get the flavor of the whole. Savor those parts that speak to you, and skim over the rest. You can’t digest it all in one sitting, but through prudent reading you can focus on the topics of greatest interest and find ample food for thought.
The books can be purchased from The Saint Joseph’s University Press, website sjupress.com, telephone number (610) 660-3402.