In my study of the "Tempesta" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt" I explained the reasons why Giorgione chose to portray St. Joseph as a virile, young man. Shortly after Giorgione's death two of his contemporaries, Paris Bordone and Lorenzo Lotto, also painted virile, youthful St. Josephs in depictions of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine. I have already discussed the Bordone (see labels) on this blog and here provide an interpretation of Lotto's work.
A painting by Lorenzo Lotto of the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine provides another example of a young, virile St. Joseph by a contemporary of Giorgione. Entitled, “Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Thomas”, it is in the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna where it was featured in the Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition of 2006/7. Here St. Joseph kneels next to St. Catherine who gazes at him and not at the infant Christ. They are obviously exchanging vows. Joseph acts a proxy for the marriage of the infant Child, and the legendary Queen. Joseph is shown with his staff but his virile good looks and the spear-point at the end of the staff have led scholars astray.
In his work on Lotto, Bernard Berenson identified the kneeling man as St. James the Greater but provided no explanation. In the catalog of the 1997/1998 Lotto exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Peter Humfrey accepted the identification as St. Thomas because of the spear.* A decade later in the Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition in Vienna, however, the man was still identified as St. James.
There is no good reason for either St. James or St. Thomas to be in the desert participating in the mystic marriage of St. Catherine. On at least two occasions, and at about the same time as Lotto, Paris Bordone painted the mystic marriage of Catherine with a young vigorous Joseph playing a prominent role.
One of Bordone’s versions was featured in the same Bellini, Giorgione, Titian exhibition. In that painting Joseph’s muscular, bare foreleg is evidence of his role as the proxy for the mystic union of Catherine with the Christ child. The other version is at the Hermitage and also features the muscular, bare leg. In that version the Madonna has already passed the infant Christ to Joseph. In Lotto’s painting the Madonna is about to hand the Infant to Joseph.
In the Lotto catalog Peter Humfrey noted that the painting “is first recorded by Marco Boschini in his 1660 Venetian dialect poem La Carts del Navigar Pittoresco.” Boschini identified the man as St. Joseph.
"The majesty to be found in the venerable and devout old St. Joseph is for me expressed by only one brush: a brush that is most singular and memorable!"
Boschini’s description of Joseph as old, “vechiarelo,” is belied by the saint’s dark beard, full head of hair, and robust physique. In Humfrey’s opinion Boschini’s “accurate evocation of the pictorial qualities of the work is remarkable,” but he claimed that the identification of St. Joseph was “mistaken.” Humfrey believed that it was unlikely that Boschini had actually seen the painting in person, and that the spear-point told against St. Joseph.
It is true that a point on the end of Joseph’s spear must be explained but on the whole it is much easier to explain that small item than it is to explain the presence of either St. James or St. Thomas at the marriage of Catherine, or the absence of St. Joseph from this familiar scene.
*Lorenzo Lotto, Rediscovered Master of the Renaissance, New Haven, 1997. Catalog #31. “Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Thomas,” c. 1528-1530, oil on canvas, 113.5 x 152, Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna.
Dr. Francis P. DeStefano
My website, MyGiorgione, now includes my interpretations of Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt"; his "Three Ages of Man" as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man"; Titian's, "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen"; and Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione".