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Legends of the Madonna - The Marriage of the Virgin

( Originally Published 1895 )



Ital. Il Sposalizio. Fr. Le Mariage de la Vierge. Ger. Die Trauung Maria. (Jan. 23.)

This, as an artistic subject, is of great consequence, from the beauty and celebrity of some of the representations, which, however, are unintelligible without the accompanying legends. And it is worth remarking, that while the incident is avoided in early Greek Art, it became very popular with the Italian and German painters from the fourteenth century.

In the East, the prevalence of the monastic spirit, from the fourth century, had brought marriage into disrepute ; by many of the ascetic writers of the West it was considered almost in the light of a necessary evil. This idea, that the primal and most sacred ordinance of God and nature was incompatible with the sanctity and purity acceptable to God, was the origin of the singular legends of the Marriage of the Virgin. One sees very clearly that, if possible, it would have been denied that Mary had ever been married at all ; but, as the testimony of the Gospel was too direct and absolute to be set aside, it became necessary, in the narrative, to give to this distasteful . marriage the most recondite motives, and, in Art, to surround it with the most poetical and even miraculous accessories.

But before we enter on the treatment of the subject, it is necessary to say a few words on the character of Joseph, wonderfully selected to be the husband and guardian of the consecrated mother of Christ, and foster-father of the Redeemer ; and so often introduced into all the pictures which refer to the childhood of our Lord.

From the Gospels we learn nothing of him but that he was of the tribe of Judah and the lineage of David ; that he was a just man ; that he followed the trade of a carpenter, and dwelt in the little city of Nazareth. We infer from his conduct towards Mary that he was a mild, and tender, and pure-hearted, as well as an upright man. Of his age and personal appearance nothing is said. These are the points on which the Church has not decided, and on which artists, left to their own devices, and led by various opinions, have differed considerably.

The very early painters deemed it right to represent Joseph as very old, almost decrepid with age, and supported by a crutch. According to some of the monkish authorities, he was a widower, and eighty-four years old when he was espoused to Mary. On the other hand, it was argued that such a marriage would have been quite contrary to the custom of the Jews ; and that to defend Mary and to provide for her celestial off-spring it was necessary that her husband should be a man of mature age, but still strong and robust, and able to work at his trade ; and thus, with more propriety and better taste, the later painters have represented him. In the best Italian and Spanish pictures of the Holy Family he is a man of about forty or fifty, with a mild benevolent countenance, brown hair, and a short, curled beard ; the crutch, or stick, however, is seldom omitted ; it became a conventional attribute.

In the German pictures Joseph is not only old, but appears almost in a state of dotage, like a lean, wrinkled mendicant, with a bald head, a white beard, a feeble frame, and a sleepy or stupid countenance. Then, again, the late Italian painters have erred as much on the other side ; for I have seen pictures in which St. Joseph is not only a young man not more than thirty, but bears a strong resemblance to the received heads of our Saviour.

It is in the sixteenth century that we first find Joseph advanced to the dignity of a saint in his own right; and in the seventeenth he became very popular, especially in Spain, where St. Theresa had chosen him for her patron saint, and had placed her powerful Order of the reformed Carmelites under his protection. Hence the number of pictures of that time, which represent Joseph as the foster-father of Christ, carrying the Infant on his arm, and caressing him, while in the other hand he bears a lily, to express the sanctity and purity of his relations with the Virgin.

The legend of "the Marriage of Joseph and Mary" is thus given in the Protevangelion and the History of Joseph the Carpenter : —

" When Mary was fourteen years old, the priest Zacharias (or Abiathar, as he is elsewhere called) inquired of the Lord concerning her, what was right to be done and an angel came to hint and said, ` Go forth, and call together all the widowers among the people, and let each bring his rod (or wand) in his hand, and he to whom the Lord shall show a sign, let him be the husband of Mary.' And Zacharias did as the angel commanded, and made proclamation accordingly. And Joseph the carpenter, a righteous man, throwing down his axe, and taking his staff in his hand, ran out with the rest. When he appeared before the priest, and presented his rod, to ! a dove issued out of it — a dove dazzling white as the snow — and after settling on his head flew towards heaven. Then the high priest said to him, ' Thou art the person chosen to take the Virgin of the Lord, and to keep her for him.' And Joseph was at first afraid, and drew back, but afterwards he took her home to his house, and said to her, Behold, I have taken thee from the temple of the Lord, and now I will leave thee in my house, for I must go and follow my trade of building. I will return to thee, and meanwhile the Lord be with thee and watch over thee.' So Joseph left her, and Mary remained in her house."

There is nothing said of any marriage ceremony ; some have even affirmed that Mary was only betrothed to Joseph, but for conclusive reasons it remains a matter of faith that she was married to him.

I must mention here an old tradition cited by St. Jerome, and which has been used as a text by the painters. The various suitors who aspired to the honor of marrying the consecrated " Virgin of the Lord," among whom was the son of the high priest, deposited their wands in the temple over night, and next morning the rod of Joseph was found, like the rod of Aaron, to have budded forth into leaves and flowers. The other suitors thereupon broke their wands in rage and despair ; and one among them, a youth of noble lineage, whose name was Agabus, fled to Mount Carmel, and became an anchorite, that is to say, a Carmelite friar.

According to the Abbé Orsini, who gives a long description of the espousals of Mary and Joseph, they returned after the marriage ceremony to Nazareth, and dwelt in the house of St. Anna.

Now, with regard to the representations, we find that many of the early painters, and particularly the Italians, have care-fully attended to the fact, that, among the Jews, marriage was a civil contract, not a religious rite. The ceremony takes place in the open air, in a garden, or in a landscape, or in front of the temple. Mary, as a meek and beautiful maiden of about fifteen, attended by a train of virgins, stands on the right ; Joseph, behind whom are seen the disappointed suitors, is on the left. The priest joins their hands, or Joseph is in the act of placing the ring on the finger of the bride. This is the traditional arrangement from Giotto down to Raphael. In the series by Giotto, in the Arena at Padua, we have three scenes from the marriage legend. 1. St. Joseph and the other suitors present their wands to the high priest. 2. They kneel before the altar, on which their wands are deposited, waiting for the promised miracle. 3. The marriage ceremony. It takes place before an altar in the interior of the temple. The Virgin, a most graceful figure, but rather too old, stands at-tended by her maidens ; St. Joseph holds his wand with the flower and the holy Dove resting on it ; one of the disappointed suitors is about to strike him; another breaks his wand against his knee. Taddeo Gaddi, Angelico, Ghirlandajo, Perugino, all followed this traditional conception of the subject, except that they omit the altar, and place the locality in the open air, or under a portico. Among the relics venerated in the cathedral of Perugia is the nuptial ring of the blessed Virgin ; and for the altar of the sacrament there Perugino painted the appropriate subject of the Marriage of the Virgin. Here the ceremony takes place under the portico of the temple, and Joseph of course puts the ring on her finger. It is a beautiful composition, which has been imitated more or less by the painters of the Perugino school, and often repeated in the general arrangement. The picture was carried off from the church by the French, sold in France, and is now to be seen in the Musée at Caen.

But in this subject, Raphael, while yet a youth, excelled his master and all who had gone before him. Every one knows the famous as SP0sALIZIo of the Brera" [Milan]. It was painted by Raphael in his twenty-first year, for the church of S. Francesco in Città di Castello ; and though he has closely followed the conception of his master, it is modified by that ethereal grace which even then distinguished him. Here Mary and Joseph stand in front of the temple, the high priest joins their hands, and Joseph places the ring on the finger of the bride : he is a man of about thirty, and holds his wand, which has blossomed into a lily, but there is no dove upon it. Be-hind Mary is a group of the virgins of the temple ; behind Joseph the group of disappointed suitors ; one of whom, in the act of breaking his wand against his knee, a singularly graceful figure, seen more in front and richly dressed, is perhaps the despairing youth mentioned in the legend. With something of the formality of the elder schools, the figures are noble and dignified ; the countenances of the principal person-ages have a characteristic refinement and beauty, and a soft, tender enthusiastic melancholy, which lends a peculiar and appropriate charm to the subject. In fact, the whole scene is here idealized ; it is like a lyric poem.

In Ghirlandajo's composition (Florence, S. Maria Novella), Joseph is an old man with a bald head ; the architecture is splendid ; the accessory figures, as is usual with Ghirlandajo, are numerous and full of grace. In the background are musicians playing on the pipe and tabor, an incident which I do not recollect to have seen in other pictures.

The Sposalizio by G-irolamo da Cotignola (Bologna Gallery), painted for the church of St. Joseph, is treated quite in a mystical style. Mary and Joseph stand before an altar, on the steps of which are seated, on one side a prophet, on the other a sibyl.

By the German painters the scene is represented with a characteristic homely neglect of all historic propriety. The temple is a Gothic church ; the altar has a Gothic altar-piece ; Joseph looks like an old burgher, arrayed in furs and an embroidered gown ; and the Virgin is richly dressed in the costume of the fifteenth century. The suitors are often knights and cavaliers with spurs and tight hose.

It is not said anywhere that St. Anna and St. Joachim were present at the marriage of their daughter; hence they are sup-posed to have been dead before it took place. This has not prevented some of the old German artists from introducing them, because, according to their ideas of domestic propriety, they ought to have been present.

I observe that the later painters who treated the subject, Rubens and Poussin for instance, omit the disappointed suitors.

After the marriage, or betrothal, Joseph conducts his wife to his house. The group of the returning procession has been beautifully treated in Giotto's series at Padua ; 1 still more beautifully by Luini in the fragment of fresco now in the Brera at Milan. Here Joseph and Mary walk together hand in hand. He looks at her, just touching her fingers with an air of tender veneration ; she looks down, serenely modest. Thus they return together to their humble home ; and with this scene closes the first part of the life of the Virgin Mary.



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