Advent Art, Day 20: When Joseph Woke From His Dream


About the Art: Gaetano Gandolfi, Angel Appears to Joseph in a Dream, c. 1790.

Gaetano Gandolfi (1734–1802) was an Italian painter and sculptor during the late Baroque era. His brother, son, and grandson were also artists in Bologna. He maintained a commercially successful career as an artist, with 220 works still in existence. The story goes that he died while bowling. Some say it was a heart attack, others claim he was hit in the head with a ball.

Many artists have attempted to render this scene from Matthew 1 of the angel visiting Joseph in his sleep. Though it is a simple story without too many components, there still remains an infinite combination of artistic choices. Was Joseph lying down or sitting up? Was he indoors or outside? And the angel—what did he look like? Was he cherubic and small, or mighty like a warrior. Did he have wings, and if so, what shape would they be? Would they be smooth like a bat, or feathered like a bird?

Interpretation is commentary. It is an editorial judgment on how the artist reads the scene. Unlike Botticelli’s Annunciation, which showed a hard separation between the angel and Mary, Gandolfi has the angel gently touching Joseph’s arm (See both below to compare). Gandolfi sits Joseph up in what has to be a light sleep. Sandals are on his feet and his walking stick is in his hand, showing that he is positioned to obey the angel immediately upon waking. He will wake and go to Mary’s side.

Are you aware that our imaginations are always editorializing and providing commentary on the stories you read and hear? We can’t help it. God made us this way. We supply details where there are none. How have you imagined the moment when the angel visits Joseph? How is it similar to Gandolfi’s? How does it differ?

(The excerpt under the heading “Consider” is from my book, The Advent of the Lamb of God.)


“God was bringing his ancient plan to fruition, a plan forged in the void of the vast expanse that existed before the world was made, and Mary was somehow part of it. So was Joseph. They were part of it because the baby in Mary’s womb was at the center of it, as he had somehow been since before time. Her son would be the consolation of her people, Israel. He would be their king, and of his kingdom there would be no end.

“The angel said, ‘Son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you will call him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.’

“Joseph woke from his dream and for the first time in a while felt like a man who knew what he was supposed to do. He was supposed to believe. To believe God, and to believe Mary. He was supposed to love her, take care of her, and keep her as safe and secure as he could.

“So he married that girl, and together they set out for his hometown to register as a family. And Joseph told Mary, ‘When he comes, his name will be Jesus,’ because the angel said he will save his people from their sins.”[1]


Joseph had to trust the Lord not only with his wife’s pregnancy, but with her reputation as well as his own. To the world, she appeared to have been unfaithful. And had it not been for the angel’s visit, Joseph would not have known what happened with any certainty. But God spoke to Joseph, and his word shaped the way Joseph responded to Mary’s pregnancy. Where in your life do you feel you lack counsel or understanding?

Where do you most readily look for answers or direction for the difficult decisions you must make? Money? Station in life? God’s word? The counsel of experts or friends? What is your process for deciding to trust a source of wisdom and counsel?

The name “Immanuel” means “God with us.” In what sense is he with us? How is he with us?


[1] Ramsey, Russ. The Advent of the Lamb of God. IVP, 2018. pg. 133.

angel-appear-to-joseph-in-a-dream Gandolfini Full

Sandro Botticelli, The Annunciation, 1489, tempera on panel, 150 x 156 cm, Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

Boticelli The Annunciation Full
Russ Ramsey
Russ is a pastor and author living in Nashville, Tennessee. His books include Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), and the Retelling the Story Series, featuring The Advent of the Lamb of God (IVP, 2018). His personal mission is to communicate the truths of Scripture in accessible ways to people in process. Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.

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