FRAGMENTS OF THE BIOGRAPHY
OF JOSEPH THE CARPENTER
Perhaps no figure in Christian sacred history has experienced a greater change than Joseph the Carpenter, husband of the Virgin Mary and stepfather of Jesus. On the one hand, Joseph enjoyed virtually no attention from the western Church for such a long time that the first international symposium devoted to him, held in 1970, was entitled Saint Joseph during the First Fifteen Centuries of the Church.1 His role had been so minimal that a millennium and a half could be covered in one conference. And it has often been pointed out that representations in western medieval visual culture either omit him entirely or construct him in manners that appear to denigrate Joseph in a variety of ways, especially to impugn his masculinity. I have argued elsewhere that one result of the manipulation of Joseph's image by the Church was that in the fifteenth century he could be understood as exhibiting behaviors associated with masochism, the perversion that Freud called the “kindliest.”2 On the other hand, Joseph enjoys primacy of place in the Christian Bible, for the gospel of Matthew, the first book in the New Testament, opens with the genealogy of Joseph. His assigned role of protecting God's infant son can result in a prominent position in visual representation, and his assigned status can even equal Mary's. By the seventeenth century Joseph unambiguously heads the Holy Family, and he certainly holds an important place
1 The proceedings of this conference were published as volume 19 of the Cahiers de Joséphologie in 1971.
2 In a lecture entitled “Real Men Change Diapers? Masochism and Masculinity in Late Medieval and Early Modern Visual Cultures,” delivered in the Catherine H. Campbell Art History Lecture Series at the University of Akron on 15 November 2002. On masochism, see Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins (New York: Routledge, 1992) and David Savran, Taking It Lite a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).