The Portrayal of Joseph in Nicola Pisano’s Nativity Panels in the Pulpit in the Baptistry of Pisa

Panel from the Baptistry of Pisa: the Annunciation to Mary (Mary in the center with Gabriel to the top right of her), the Nativity (center-right), the Annunciation to the Shepherds (top and bottom right), and the Bathing of the Christ child (bottom-center left) all together.

Nicola Pisano created six marble panels in his pulpit in the Baptistry of Pisa in 1260. Three of the panels represent several different events recorded in the canonic accounts of the nativity and childhood of Jesus found in the first two chapters of the gospels of Matthew and Luke as well as one event referenced in later apocryphal narratives.

In the first panel, seen above, Pisano combines four events, three from the Gospel of Luke (the Annunciation to Mary, the Nativity, and the Annunciation to the Shepherds) and one, the Bathing of the Christ-child by the Two Midwives, an extra-canonic event, first mentioned in the Infancy Gospel of James and later elaborated in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. While many Western Christian theologians dismissed the midwives and the validity of the account of the bathing of the Christ-child, it was a popular theme in art in eastern Christianity and became popular in the West before Pisano’s composition.

Although this first panel is replete with these four scenes and their many different characters, Pisano thrusts Mary to the forefront, enlarging her and making her the dominant human figure in this panel, as in the artistic tradition of a classical Roman goddess and as was declared in the Council of Ephesus in 431 when she was acknowledged as the theotokos, the one who bears God.  Thus, she towers over both a diminutive Joseph, seen in the lower left corner of the composition, and the other sculpted figures, scattered throughout the work.  And yet, despite these decisions, Pisano appears to acknowledge Joseph’s Matthean roles as dreamer and witness, and portrays him, looking up and beyond himself for the revelation of God. 

Mary at the right sees the magi come bowing before her and the Christ child.  An angel is between Mary, Jesus, and two of the wise men watching.  Joseph is squeezed into the corner, thinking of what he sees.  Three horses are watching behind the magi.

The acknowledgment of Joseph’s roles as a dreamer and witness to the Christ is further affirmed in Pisano’s, Adoration of the Magi, a second panel in the Pisa baptistry.  Here, in contrast to the first representation, Joseph is portrayed as an enlarged and distinguished contemplative figure, of equal physical size to the other adult figures, aside from the Virgin.  Though Joseph has been placed just behind Mary, in the far right corner, and set apart from the interaction between her and the Child and the Magi, Pisano’s composition, nonetheless, suggests Joseph’s position and role is that of a spiritual exemplar who has been situated as he has in order to awaken viewers and elicit a response: to draw their attention to the salvific event and, in the process, to additionally help them see beyond this event and, even this sculpture, to the spiritual meaning and future of the Christ.

A crowd of people surround Mary, Joseph, and Simeon against a backdrop of architecture on top of all the figures.  Simeon holds the Christ child to announce him as Savior.

Creative and original a sculptor as Nicola Pisano was, he followed a standard compositional pattern in this representation of the Presentation in the Temple, the third and final panel related to the nativity and childhood of Jesus from the Pisa Baptistry. Consequently, Pisano gives Mary and the Child and Simeon the central theological and aesthetical positions and places Joseph, positioned to her left, physically and psychologically, apart.  Nonetheless, here, Mary’s centrality is somewhat diminished as the sculptor places more emphasis upon the Christ-child and Simeon in this panel and permits other figures to have prominence as well.

Author: Dr. Philip W. Jacobs

Author & professor of art history and Christian subjects.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: