Book of Hours of Catherine de Clèves (van Kleef) is the most richly decorated 15th c. Netherlandish book of prayers. It was created in Utrecht after 1434 and is in The Morgan Library & Museum (MS M.917/945). I have previously written about its miniatures decorating Monday prayers for the Purgatory souls (post available HERE), and today I would like to focus on a miniature depicting the Holy Family – with special attention on the figure of St Joseph.
Anne L. Williams has recently published a book „Satire, Veneration, and St. Joseph in Art, c. 1300-1550” (Amsterdam University Press, 2019), and earlier she wrote an article “Satirizing the Sacred: Humor in Saint Joseph’s Veneration and Early Modern Art” (Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, 10:1/Winter 2018, available online).
She described, among others, late medieval transformation of the veneration of St Joseph in reference to the then development of urban society and bourgeoisie class. St Joseph became a patron saint for rich laity of the cities: fathers and husbands did not want to see him as clumsy old fool, but rather as capable and resourceful mature man.
St Joseph and Virgin Mary according to most legends had a significant age difference; naturally that created association with popular folk stories of „ill-matched couple”. As a very old man Joseph guaranteed Mary’s perpetual virginity, simply because he was not able to consummate his marriage, just like foolish old husbands from various humoristic tales.
As Anne L. Williams noted, in medieval art references to male prowess may have occurred in the details of fashion, for example in particular purses with daggers, depicted i.e. in the miniature of January of the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.
Referring to implied impotence of St Joseph, Williams gave (among others) the example of The Doubt of Joseph in the Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre Dame of Strasbourg (Master of the Little Garden of Paradise, ca 1430), where Joseph’s purse is open, and his dagger pouch empty, while the knife stuck into table divides him from his pregnant wife.
She also wrote that in the miniature from Hours of Catherine de Clèves “Joseph’s “dagger and pouch” lies uselessly limp, in contrast to those of the phallic cupbearers in the January miniature of the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry”. I would like to disagree with such an interpretation.
In the miniature St Joseph’s purse is on its place, and the dagger’s handle points up. Also, we have another visual joke here: Joseph eating soup (is it a milk soup?) has been juxtaposed with Mary breastfeeding Jesus. Joseph looks away, as if he tried to fight the temptation… instead of his wife’s breast (which he probably he would like to suck himself), he has to content himself with a bowl of soup.
I believe that it is also important that Joseph is sitting in a chair… made of wine-barrel! On one hand medieval Christmas plays as well as some works of art depicted Joseph as drinking wine, which Anne L. Williams brought up in the context of satiric image of Joseph as a drunken village fool. On the other hand, it may also have had a sexual meaning: “piercing the barrel” was a phrase used in reference do copulation, and especially – defloration.
In one of his fabliaux (“Gombert and the Two Clerks”), French poet Jean Bodel (ca 1165 – ca 1205) wrote about a young man bragging on having sex with his host’s daughter, saying: „je vieng de foutre, / Mès que ce fu la fille l’oste; / Pris en ai devant et encoste; / Aforé li ai son tonel” (in various English translations: “I come straight from fucking / the host’s daughter. / I took her from the front and the side; / I pierced her keg for her” or ” I come from fucking! / And it was our host’s daughter, no less! / I took her from the front and from the side;/ I breached her wine barrel”).
So as a result I believe that in case of a miniature from Hours of Catherine de Clèves we have an image of the “new Joseph”: mature but capable man, and certainly not an impotent. In this situation, of course, his wife’s virginity cannot be blamed on his physical weakness anymore. I think that the late-medieval “improvement” of St Joseph’s image simply had some side effects. He no longer was a husband unable to perform, but he became a husband who is kept away by his own wife, which may be even more frustrating.
Incidentally, it is believed that Hours of Catherine de Clèves were commissioned around 1440, that is when the duchess made a decision to separate from her own husband.
Most likely many husbands could very much identify with such a Joseph, and at least there was a consolation: perhaps frustrating marriage may at least lead to sainthood.