As Anne Williams astutely identifies, depictions of Saint Joseph in works of art of the fourteenth to sixteenth century are rife with paradox, a seemingly conflicting combination of ridicule and devotion. By setting out to reconcile the two strands of interpretation that have polarized the saint into distinct early and late manifestations, one comical and derogatory, the other sanctified and idealized, Williams makes an important contribution to the often contradictory scholarship regarding this polyvalent saint, arguing that profane humor and satire could be used to reinforce sacred meanings.
By the end of the seventeenth century, Joseph was one of the most venerated saints of the Catholic Church, but Williams establishes that devotion began far earlier than has previously been acknowledged, suggesting that his cult had a strong following by the early thirteenth century. This she associates with the saint’s most important relic, which appeared at Aachen Cathedral at around this time: Joseph’s Hosen or stockings, believed to have been used to make the swaddling clothes of Christ. Aachen was already an important pilgrimage site and would have attracted visitors from a wide geographical area and so, Williams concludes, it is unsurprising that this encouraged the spread of Josephine devotion. Chapter one considers the evidence for this by examining the earliest manifestations of Joseph’s cult, predominantly in ivories and altarpieces, demonstrating how the iconography of these images, particularly in Germany, but also in the Low Countries and France, often made reference to the relic in amusing ways. Humor, the author argues, was therefore fundamental to the early development of his cult. The chapter then considers how other depictions of the saint performing domestic tasks, such as parenting the Christ Child, cooking, or washing laundry, can be seen to have an affiliation with Nativity or cradle plays. Williams suggests that the humor of the ‘domestic’ Joseph is the key to understanding these works; they were not meant to ridicule the saint, but were intentionally ambiguous. Joseph could be seen by a lay audience, both rich and poor, as an attainable model of domestic responsibility and a worthy figure for veneration. Despite his human flaws, Joseph chooses the correct course of action in the grand scheme of things and so laughter became a way of revering him. As Williams notes, “Through sympathy and moral rectitude he functions as an effective model for his Christian audience.” (42)
This interplay of humor and sanctity is discussed further in chapter two, which suggests that comical images of Joseph as a dutiful husband could also function to reinforce socially advantageous values that emphasized the importance of fidelity and childcare. Meanwhile, images of Joseph as a doddering old man lacking sexual prowess also support the idea of Mary’s continued virginity. Focusing on fifteenth- and sixteenth-century works in various media, Williams considers the steady increase in derisive depictions of the saint within the context of contemporary forms of satire, particularly those related to the fool, the peasant, the henpecked husband, and the ‘unequal couple.’ She asserts that the circulation of mass-produced satirical prints in the fifteenth century meant that contemporary audiences were familiar with these visual forms of satire, and therefore that ridicule of Joseph as a rustic old peasant, sometimes exhibiting similar mannerisms to his ass, would not go unnoticed. Yet, despite this lack of decorum, Williams believes that humorous images of the saint actually became a means of highlighting his most important virtues: his chastity and his care for the Christ Child. Consequently, mockery of Joseph in these images did not undermine the saint’s veneration; instead, once again, laughing at him became in itself a form of reverence and contributed to the spread and popularity of his cult. The overall argument of chapters one and two is that the humor and comedy associated with Saint Joseph, from his earliest depictions, had a specific function; not only to render the divine accessible, but also as a means of catching the viewers’ attention, leading them towards discovering deeper meanings.
Chapter three, which at times can be quite hard to follow, in part due to the liberal use of Latin terms, considers the role of satire in late medieval religious art and its origins in classical, early Christian, and contemporary rhetorical theories of humor and laughter in the construction of urbanitas (city life). It argues that the paradox created between ridicule and reverence in art has roots in Greek satire, in combination with ideas of courtliness and the fashion for courtly gift giving, which prized wit and irony. Williams also identifies the rhetorical use of satire within an extensive tradition of Christian humility and humor, evident in literature and in the sermons of the preaching orders. This chapter demonstrates that play and humor are present in many kinds of religious commissions, not only in representations of Saint Joseph. It also refutes the notion that humor in late medieval devotional art was solely intended to appeal to an uneducated lay audience, arguing that by the twelfth century a sophisticated person would joke through derision, biting wit, or humiliation. Humorous depictions of Joseph would therefore appeal to all levels of society, and could be used to call attention to his most important and worthy characteristics.
Chapter four discusses the multivalent image, in particular the altarpiece, which could convey multiple meanings for the clergy and laity alike. Focusing on depictions of Joseph in different fifteenth- and sixteenth-century versions of the Adoration of the Magi, Williams considers Josephine iconography in the context of an early modern urban money economy. Representations of the saint in these images range from the comical miser to responsible caretaker of the family’s wealth, but rather than categorizing them as either derogatory or solemn in message, as prior scholarship has done, the author explores how these works could generate apparently contradictory messages, satirizing Joseph’s greed, yet celebrating his important theological and societal role as treasurer.
The increasingly urbanized market economy of the late medieval period witnessed the growth of a wealthy merchant class, and Williams makes a convincing case that this led to a shift in ideals of masculinity. The prevalence of the nuclear family became linked to individual responsibilities, particularly for the head of the family, who was expected to fulfill the roles of loyal father, teacher, provider, and keeper of the family’s wealth. She argues, therefore, that Saint Joseph became a figure of extraordinary relevance to contemporary social concerns. While images of the saint as the responsible treasurer of the Magi’s gifts intertwine with contemporary sermons on the importance of the lay father as family accountant, they also speak to anxieties regarding money as the source of corruption. Images where Joseph appears ogling and perplexed, while storing or receiving the kings’ gifts, can be seen to poke fun at his preoccupation with worldly goods; however, they can also be interpreted in a positive way, underlining his responsible approach to managing the Holy Family’s wealth. Some works seem to particularly highlight Joseph’s Jewishness, and while these tie him to the Old Law, the author suggests that they may also reflect medieval notions of the avaricious Jew and the evils associated with usury, an issue of particular concern in emerging money economies. Satirical representations of Joseph in Adoration of the Magi imagery can therefore draw attention to prevailing tensions at a time of great social change, but do not undermine the central doctrinal message.
The development of the nuclear family also coincided with a lay desire for a more personal religious experience, leading to greater devotional interest in other members of Christ’s family, particularly in Germany and the Netherlands. This is reflected in the extensive number of images depicting the Holy Kinship and in the spread of the cult of Saint Anne, the Virgin’s mother (see Virginia Nixon, Mary’s Mother: Saint Anne in Late Medieval Europe, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004, and Jennifer Welsh, The Cult of St. Anne in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2017). Joseph’s appearance in works of art as a father preoccupied with work and worldly goods, whether caring for his child, performing his trade as a carpenter, or securing his family’s wealth, could be seen as an exemplar for the Pater Familias, a positive role model for masculine behavior. Williams’s central argument, that the use of humor in these depictions was a deliberate strategy to engage the viewer and focus attention on the image’s key message, is a convincing one. Humor was a way of humanizing Joseph, giving the viewer a deeper emotional experience; it did not mean that he was not venerated.
New College of the Humanities, London