The Portrayal of Joseph the Carpenter in Nicola and Giovanni Pisano’s Duomo Pulpit in the Siena Cathedral

Between 1265 and 1268, Nicola Pisano sculpted the seven marble panels of the Duomo pulpit in the Siena Cathedral with the assistance of his son, Giovanni.  However, only two, the first of the Visitation, the Nativity, and the Annunciation of Shepherds, and the second, of the Adoration of the Magi, include representations of the figure of Joseph.

Marble panel of different Bible scenes: the Visitation (top left), the Nativity (center), the Bathing of the Christ-child (bottom left), and the Annunciation to the shepherds (right half).  Mary and Joseph border the left and right of all the figures inside.
The Visitation, Bathing of the Christ Child, Nativity, and the Annunciation to the Shepherds

The first image, the conflated portrayal of the Visitation, the Nativity, the Annunciation to the Shepherds, and the Bathing of the Christ-child, bears strong similarities to Nicola Pisano’s earlier sculpted panel in the pulpit of the baptistry of Pisa, especially in the form and pattern of the composition, the accounts portrayed, and the figures represented.  And, yet, the shared work of Nicola and Giovanni Pisano here, as well as in the next panel, is significantly more complex, intricate, and dynamic than his earlier work, made so by among other things, his insertion of additional human and angelic figures and animals.

The journey of the magi (most of the panel from the top left to the bottom) and the adoration of the magi (top right) before Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child.
Adoration and Journey of the Magi

 The Pisanos second panel, the Adoration of the Magi represents a dramatic departure from his previous portrayal in Pisa. In it the sculptors recount not only the event of the actual adoration but also the Journey of the Magi before their encounter with the Virgin and the Christ-child.  Further, as in the previous panel in this pulpit, the sculptors add many more figures (including assistants of the Magi) and animals to this new sculptured panel.  The result is a more complex portrayal which is nonetheless also more dynamic and fluid.  

In addition, in their reinterpretation they also substantially reduce the size of the Virgin, and by their addition of other figures and elements, even her role.  The Pisanos also present Joseph, situated to the left, just above the figure of Mary, as a much younger and beardless figure, of comparable age, as some other artists of the period were included to portray him. Further, they place Joseph, who now stands between Mary and those who approach her, in the role of guardian, a role often attributed to him, and highlighted, in this case, by having Joseph tower, as it were, over Mary and the Child and the adoring Magi. Thus, the Pisanos leave no doubt that this is a primary role for Joseph, that he is the primary earthly guardian of God’s Child and Virgin.  At the same time, they feature Joseph as a dreamer, as before, as Nicola Pisano portrayed him in his Pisa composition: looking out, as if he is awaiting revelation or another angelic message.  However, this has been somewhat diminished in this later representation.

Author: Dr. Philip W. Jacobs

Author & professor of art history and Christian subjects.

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