Saint Joseph in Italian Renaissance Art

By Cunningham, Lawrence S. | Commonweal, September 27, 2002 | Go to article overview

Saint Joseph in Italian Renaissance Art


Cunningham, Lawrence S., Commonweal


Carolyn C. Wilson Saint Joseph's University Press, $49.95, 281pp.

Peter John Olivi and Ubertino da Casale figure prominently in Burr's book. They also have a place in Wilson's study of Saint Joseph in Italian Renaissance painting, because both men wrote on the significance of Saint Joseph in Christian piety. That they did so reminds us of how powerful the Franciscan influence was in orienting medieval piety to a consideration of the earthly Jesus. It was Francis, after all, who "humanized" the nativity of Jesus by celebrating a Christmas Mass in a stable in Greccio in 1223. It was inevitable that focus would be made on the dramatis personae of that scene.

Devotion to Saint Joseph, if one judges from the number of communities, parishes, and religious institutions under his patronage, is widespread. It is astonishing that there was no universal feast in his honor until 1470. That tardiness may also explain why no significant church bears his name in Rome. It was only in 1870 that Joseph was named the universal patron of the church, and more recently was honored on May 1 as the patron of workers (a move to counter the Communist May Day celebrations in Europe).

The apocryphal gospels uniformly insisted that Joseph was an old widower who was not Mary's husband, but her "guardian." That picture explains why he is often represented in art as elderly, drowsing, disengaged from the events at the birth of Jesus. In medieval plays he was often a comic figure. Wilson's thesis is that an examination of Renaissance painting indicates that this older stereotype will not do.

Wilson examines four broad categories of paintings: the marriage of Mary and Joseph; the adoration of the shepherds; the flight into Egypt; and scenes in which the Holy Family rests while on that flight. …

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