Oh, Joseph! Poor Joseph! Always off to one side, half in the shadows, but with so much responsibility. Of course, the bible says next to nothing about him – apart from the fact that he was of the house of David, and was thought to be Jesus’s father. So almost everything we know must come from elsewhere. This is how Gossaert chooses to depict him:
An old man, with his left hand resting on a staff, his right against the wall, as he keeps out of the way, half-hidden in the doorway. Half-hidden, yes, but clear for all to see, as he is in such a bright red robe. On the whole bright colours were associated with wealth (we have already seen the shepherds in their dull, monochrome clothing), but here we need to know he is important, so he must stand out. Hence the bright red. However, this is not an excessive display – only one colour, after all, and, unlike the kings and their entourage, no patterns, no elaboration, no jewellery – no accessorizing. A functional belt, yes, and some pattens – outdoor overshoes – but that’s all.
Why so old? Well, apocryphal texts say as much. In the Protoevangelium of St James, dating to the second half of the second century, it says that when Mary was 12, they decided to find a husband for her. Long story short, according to verse 9, ‘And the priest said to Joseph, You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord. But Joseph refused, saying: I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl.’ In Chapter 8 of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, probably written in the first half of the seventh century (and certainly no later than the ninth), this ‘lottery’ happened when Mary was fourteen. When told that he had been chosen, ‘Joseph began bashfully to address them, saying: I am an old man, and have children; why do you hand over to me this infant, who is younger than my grandsons?’ This inevitably fed through to the Golden Legend, put together in the 1260s, where, in the description of The Nativity of Our Blessed Lady, we read that, ‘Joseph, of the house of David, was there among the others, and him seemd to be a thing unconvenable, a man of so old age as he was to have so tender a maid.’ This last quotation is from William Caxton’s translation of 1483 – ‘unconvenable’ means ‘inappropriate’. It was probably the Golden Legend which was Giotto’s source when he came to illustrate the Betrothal of the Virgin in the Scrovegni Chapel. If you’d like to read more about the story, and the nature of the ‘lottery’, see Day 31 – The Suitors Praying. Given the insistence in all three of these texts that Joseph was an old man – indeed, one even says he had grandchildren older than Mary – we should not be surprised to see him like this in the paintings.
And why so retiring? Well, he accepted his role as a guardian thanks to the intervention of an angel. According to the Protoevangelium, having become betrothed to Mary, Joseph had travel for work. He returned after about six months, before their marriage had been consummated, only to find her pregnant. The Gospel of Matthew (1:19-21) takes over from there (or rather, the Protoevangelium filled in before this point):
Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins.
Joseph, as we know, takes this responsibility on board: he looks after Mary, he cares for Jesus, he keeps them both safe. However, at no point is he warned, at the birth of his stepson, which will, for reasons beyond his control, take place in the vicinity of a manger, that they would be visited by angels, shepherds and an undefined number of wise men/kings, not to mention their various retinues. I can’t help thinking that he’s keeping out of the way until everyone has gone away again, and things get back to normal. Which, of course, they never will. And, of course, it’s not just the characters in the painting. We are there too, looking in, and Joseph knows that. He must do, he is looking out at us, just like the hidden angel, who is further to the right. In many ways Joseph is the most human, the most approachable person in the story – he is the one most like us – and so it is hardly surprising that he should be the person whose glance brings us into the circle of those gathered around the new-born child. And to me it is hardly surprising that he should be the person who would like us all to go back home.