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Legends of the Madonna - The Carpenter's Shop

( Originally Published 1895 )



It is distinctly related, that Joseph brought up his foster Son as a carpenter, and that Jesus exercised the craft of his reputed father. In the Church pictures we do not often meet with this touching and familiar aspect of the life of our Saviour. But in the small decorative pictures painted for the rich ecclesiastics, and for private oratories, and in the cheap prints which were prepared for distribution among the people, and became especially popular during the religious reaction of the seventeenth century, we find this homely version of the subject perpetually, and often most pleasingly, exhibited. The greatest and wisest Being who ever trod the earth was thus represented, in the eyes of the poor artificer, as ennobling and sanctifying labor and toil ; and the quiet domestic duties and affections were here elevated and hallowed by religious associations, and adorned by all the graces of At. Even where the artistic treatment was not first-rate was not such as the painters priests and poets as well as painters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries would have lent to such themes still, if the sentiment and significance were but intelligible to those especially addressed, the purpose was accomplished, and the effect must have been good.

I have before me an example in a set of twelve prints, executed in the Netherlands, exhibiting a sort of history of the childhood of Christ, and his training under the eye of his mother. It is entitled "Jesu Christi dei Domini Salvatoris nostri Infantia," "The Infancy of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ ; " and the title-page is surrounded by a border composed of musical instruments, spinning wheels, distaffs, and other implements of female industry, intermixed with all kinds of masons' and carpenters' tools. To each print is appended a descriptive Latin verse; Latin being chosen, I suppose, because the publication was intended for distribution in different countries, and especially foreign missions, and to be explained by the priests to the people.

1. The figure of Christ is seen in a glory surrounded by cherubim, etc.

2. The Virgin is seated on the hill of Sion. The Infant in her lap, with outspread arms, looks up to a choir of angels, and is singing with them.

3. Jesus, slumbering in his cradle, is rocked by two angels, while Mary sits by, engaged in needlework.

4. The interior of a carpenter's shop. Joseph is plying his work, while Joachim stands near him. The Virgin is measuring linen, and St. Anna looks on. Two angels are at play with the Infant Christ, who is blowing soap-bubbles.

5. While Mary is preparing the family meal, and watching a pot which is boiling on the fire, Joseph is seen behind chop-ping wood: more in front, Jesus is sweeping together the chips, and two angels are gathering them up.

6. Mary is reeling off a skein of thread ; Joseph is squaring a plank ; Jesus is picking up the chips, assisted by two angels.

7. Mary is seated at her spinning-wheel; Joseph, assisted by Jesus, is sawing through a large beam ; two angels looking on.

8. Mary is spinning with a distaff ; behind, Joseph is sawing a beam, on which Jesus is standing above ; and two angels are lifting a plank.

9. Joseph is seen building up the framework of a house, assisted by an angel ; Jesus is boring a hole with a large gimlet ; an angel helps him ; Mary is winding thread.

10. Joseph is busy roofing in the house; Jesus, assisted by the angels, is carrying a beam of wood up a ladder ; below, in front, Mary is carding wool or flax.

11. Joseph is building a boat, assisted by Jesus, who has a hammer and chisel in his hand : two angels help him. The Virgin is knitting a stocking; and the new-built house is seen in the background.

12. Joseph is erecting a fence round a garden ; Jesus, assisted by the angels, is fastening the palings together; while Mary is weaving garlands of roses.

Justin Martyr mentions, as a tradition of his time, that Jesus assisted his foster father in making yokes and ploughs. In Holland, where these prints were published, the substitution of the boat-building seems very natural. St. Bonaventura, the great Franciscan theologian, and a high authority in all that relates to the life and character of Mary, not only describes her as a pattern of female industry, but alludes particularly to the legend of the distaff, and mentions a tradition, that when in Egypt, the Holy Family was so reduced by poverty, that Mary begged from door to door the fine flax which she afterwards spun into a garment for her Child.



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