Joseph Was An Old Man

… and a very old man was he, according to the Cherry-Tree Carol, at any rate. William Henry Husk points out, in his note on the carol in Songs of the Nativity, that the description of Joseph as old has no foundation in the New Testament, but only in the various apocryphal narratives of Jesus’s youth, such as the ‘Gospel of the Birth of Mary’: ‘a man named Joseph, of the house and family of David, and a person very far advanced in years’.

The gospel goes on to say that (presumably because of his advanced age) Joseph tried to opt out of becoming the husband of Mary. The High Priest had ‘appointed that all the men of the house and family of David who were marriageable and not married, should each bring their rods to the altar, and out of whatsoever person’s rod after it was brought, a flower should bud forth and on the top of it the Spirit of the Lord should sit in the appearance of a dove, he should be the man to whom the Virgin should be given and be betrothed’. (This of course reflects Isaiah: ‘And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.’)

Joseph withdrew his rod at the critical moment, but the Lord God was not fooled, and commanded a second trial: ‘Joseph was therefore betrayed. For, when he did bring his rod, and a dove came from Heaven and perched upon the top of it, everyone plainly saw that the Virgin was to be betrothed to him.’ (By the way, isn’t it interesting how the reshooting of an apparently dead branch of wood (even one de-barked, carved and polished) takes a part in myth and legend worldwide?)

Husk presents the Cherry-Tree Carol with ‘Joseph and the Angel’, otherwise known as ‘As Joseph was a-walking’, running on straight from it as part of the same song. (They do in fact scan more or less the same, though it is difficult to realise this unless you work hard to get the very different tunes to each out of your head.)

As a demonstration of its antiquity, he relates the carol to the Coventry mystery cycle, performed on the feast of Corpus Christi, held (in pre-Reformation times) on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, that is, the end of May to the middle of June, depending when Easter falls – though in the modern edited text there doesn’t seem to be a reference to the obliging cherry tree.

But in fact it’s not the carol I am currently interested in: it’s the colour of Joseph’s clothes. Back in 2016, when the cleaned and restored Adoration of the Shepherds was put on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum, I thought there was something very familiar about the figure of Joseph – here a very old man with a patriarchal beard, almost slumped with exhaustion on the rod or staff which presumably got him into this situation in the first place.

Detail from Adoration of the Shepherds, by Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). (Credit: the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge)

When I worked out what it was, I started to see it everywhere (most recently in the Queen’s Gallery yesterday – a Ricci displayed among the Canalettos), and thought that it would be easy to find out the reason for it.  However, some time spent combing references to Catholic symbolism, ritual colours, seasonal cycles for vestments, or symbolism in religious art has not resulted in any insight, except that, possibly because of Joseph’s slightly ambiguous hagiological status – in theory a saint of the Anglican Church but in practice not often referred to as a saint and with no Anglican churches (I believe) dedicated to him – he does not appear at all in the normally useful but staunchly Protestant, three-volume 1847 Sketches of the History of Christian Art by Alexander Lindsay (1812–80), later 25th earl of Balcarres and 8th earl of Crawford.

Detail from Sebastiano Ricci’s Adoration of the Magi, normally at Windsor Castle but currently on display in the Queen’s Gallery, London.

So: I want to know why Joseph appears – not in every case, but in a striking number of Renaissance nativities – wearing a blue tunic and a yellow or golden robe or cloak? The blue links him to Mary, obviously: a highly technical piece in this book reveals that the pigment used by del Piombo is the hugely expensive ultramarine (made from lapis lazuli), but mixed with white lead to a paler blue than Mary’s robe. But what is the significance of the yellow? I hoped the answer might lie in Byzantine iconography, but Joseph is not often portrayed, and such icons as show him in blue and yellow seem to be modern, presumably referring back to the Renaissance tradition.

Here is a clutch of depictions, mostly Italian. I’d be grateful if someone could tell me why the carpenter and patron saint of workers (feast day, 19 March) wears this uniform so regularly?


Two Botticellis, both in the National Gallery: above, The Adoration of the Kings; below, the Mystic Nativity. There are at least two others, another Adoration of the Kings, also in the National Gallery, and a Nativity at the Columbia Museum of Art, which use the same colours.

This picture of Joseph taking the infant Jesus for a walk while Mary rests is by the Spaniard Juan Sánchez Cotán (1561–1627). Note the stylish sandals, though the child, with his bizarrely attached hair, unfortunately suffers from Ugly Bambino Syndrome. (Credit: the Bowes Museum)

Giorgione shows the Adoration of the Shepherds taking place in the countryside. (Credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Murillo’s Nativity, showing a younger Joseph, with a rather slender staff. (Credit: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

The Nativity and Annunciation to the Shepherds, by Andrea Previtale (c.1480–c. 1528). The ox and the ass breathe gently on the baby to keep him warm. (Credit: Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice)

The baby plays with his elderly foster-father’s beard in this portrayal by Guido Reni. As in the Sánchez Cotán above, Mary is resting in the background, tended by an angel. (Credit: Hermitage, St Petersburg)

The painting by Giorgio Vasari (above), in Dulwich Picture Gallery, is a copy, with Joseph added, of Andre del Sarto’s Holy Family in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence (below).


Finally, Titian’s Holy Family with a Shepherd, of which the mid-Victorian critic and painter George Foggo remarked: ‘The virgin mother is middle-aged and devoid of all spirituality … A few wrinkles in Joseph’s forehead would have been a great improvement.’ (Credit: the National Gallery)


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1 Response to Joseph Was An Old Man

  1. Pingback: An Instance of Polyonymy | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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