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Legends of the Madonna - The Death of Joseph

( Originally Published 1895 )



Ital. La Morte di San Giuseppe. Fr. La Mort de St. Joseph. Ger. Josef's Tod.

Between the journey to Jerusalem and the public appearance of Jesus, chronologers place the death of Joseph, but the exact date is not ascertained; some place it in the eighteenth year of the life of our Saviour, and others in his twenty-seventh year, when, as they assert, Joseph was one hundred and eleven years old.

I have already observed, that the enthusiasm for the character of Joseph, and his popularity as a saint and patron of power, date from the fifteenth century ; and late in the sixteenth century I find; for the first time, the death of Joseph treated as a separate subject. It appears that the supposed anniversary of his death (July 20) had long been regarded in the East as a solemn festival, and that it was the custom to read publicly, on this occasion, some homily relating to his life and death. The very curious Arabian work, entitled "The History of Joseph the Carpenter," is supposed to be one of these ancient homilies, and, in its original form, as old as the fourth century). Here the death of Joseph is described with great detail, and with many solemn and pathetic circumstances ; and the whole history is put into the mouth of Jesus, who is supposed to recite it to his disciples : he describes the pious end of Joseph ; he speaks of himself as being present, and acknowledged by the dying man as " Redeemer and Messiah," and he proceeds to record the grief of Mary :

"And my mother, the Virgin, arose, and she came nigh to me and said, ' 0 my beloved Son, now must the good old man die ! ' and I answered and said unto her, '0 my most dear mother, needs must all created beings die ; and death will have his rights, even over thee, beloved mother; but death to him and to thee is no death, only the passage to eternal life ; and this body I have derived from thee shall also undergo death.' "

And they sat, the Son and the mother, beside Joseph ; and Jesus held his hand, and watched the last breath of life trembling on his lips ; and Mary touched his feet, and they were cold; and the daughters and the sons of Joseph wept and sobbed around in their grief ; and then Jesus adds, tenderly, " I, and my mother Mary, we wept with them."

Then follows a truly oriental scene, of the evil angels rising up with Death, and rejoicing in his power over the saint, while Jesus rebukes them ; and at his prayer God sends down Michael, prince of the angelic host, and Gabriel, the herald of light, to take possession of the departing spirit, enfold it in a robe of brightness, thereby to preserve it from the "dark angels," and carry it up into heaven.

This legend of the death of Joseph was, in many forms, popular in the sixteenth century; hence arose the custom of invoking him as intercessor to obtain a blessed and peaceful end, so that he became, in some sort, the patron saint of death-beds ; and it is at this time we find the first representations of the death of Joseph, afterwards a popular subject in the churches and convents of the Augustine canons and Carmelite friars, who had chosen him for their patron saint ; and also in family chapels consecrated to the memory or the repose of the dead.

The finest example I have seen is by Carlo Maratti, in the Vienna Gallery. St. Joseph is on a couch ; Christ is seated near him ; and the Virgin stands by with folded hands, in a sad, contemplative attitude.

I am not aware that the Virgin has ever been introduced into any representation of the temptation or the baptism of our Saviour.



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