The Effects of the Infancy Gospel of James on the Interpretation of St. Joseph in Christian Literature and Art, Part II

While defenders of the second century Infancy Gospel of James can argue that this narrative was born out of a genuine desire to protect the purity of Mary and in the process the divinity of Jesus, it is difficult to defend the distortions these efforts have brought too many Christian portraits of Joseph.  Nonetheless, the popularity and significant influence of the infancy Gospel of James cannot be denied, nor the fact that this narrative expresses thoughts and feelings shared by other contemporary Christians, including some of the earliest Church Fathers. Although, it’s precise origins are unknown, the multiplicity of extant manuscripts of James suggests that early in the history of its transmission, the thoughts and beliefs in this narrative were shared by members of many early Christian communities within its Eastern Christianity.  Evidence of this may be found in the fact that there are over 100 extent Greek manuscripts as well as numerous translations in other Eastern Christian languages such as Syriac, Ethiopic, Georgian, Sahidic, old short Slavonic, and Armenian, in which the Infancy Gospel of James appears.

In addition further proof of its influence can be seen in the adaptation of it by many later Christian writers.  So much so that it can be considered the foundational document of Christian apocryphal and folk literature. For despite the condemnation of the Infancy Gospel of James by Jerome and others, this narrative reemerged with few changes a few centuries later in Latin, at this point the language of the West, in a narrative entitled the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Subsequently, this narrative gave birth to other Christian apocryphal narratives, biographies, and dramas. Thus, the Infancy Gospel of James resurrected in its Latin rendition, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, was the basis for popular medieval biographies as the meditations on the life of Christ. 

In the Life of Jesus Christ, popular medieval spiritual compendiums [such] as the Golden Legend and medieval poetry [such] as the Advent lyrics of the Exeter book.  Similarly, the Infancy Gospel of James was also a primary inspiration for the medieval spiritual journals of the revelations and visions of Bridget of Sweden and for the medieval plays such as the English Corpus Christi play, Joseph’s Trouble About Mary, as well as many French Renaissance passion plays. For the largely anonymous creators of this literature, biography, poetry, spiritual writing, and drama composed between the fifth and fifteenth centuries subsumed the characters and parameters of the Infancy Gospel of James and it’s literary heir, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. In turn, this massive literature informed and inspired the vision of innumerable Christian artists throughout the centuries and led them to often represent Joseph in ways that diminished his earliest portrayals in the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John. As such, the Infancy Gospel of James has exerted a profound influence upon the both the perceptions of Joseph and the portrayals of Joseph. 

This influence is also manifest in the writings of the fourth century Christian theologian, Jerome, who we noted earlier. Although he condemned the Infancy Gospel of James, he nonetheless use many of its ideas to distort the portrayals of Joseph by arguing that Joseph never had a patriarchal or familial role, among other things. He also argued that Joseph had always been a virgin as Mary and never fathered children.  Though the canonical Gospels suggest in fact, Joseph had fathered the brothers and sisters of Jesus. As a result, Jerome felt Joseph held more in common with male members of the Christian monastic community than with other males in society.  In light of this, Jerome proffered Joseph and Mary, the spiritual parents of Jesus of Nazareth, as the primary examples of monastic life.  There was little question that these theological views also influenced artistic conceptions and presentations of Joseph by insisting that the earthly father of Jesus of Nazareth be defined as a celibate monastic figure, Jerome invited the impression that Joseph was an impotent, passive male with little in common with strong and active men. Thus along with the Infancy Gospel of James and it’s literary heirs, Jerome significantly influence[sic] perceptions and portrayals of Joseph, leading artists to believe, among other things, that it was perfectly acceptable to exclude Joseph from artistic compositions of the Holy Family.

Thus not surprisingly there are literally thousands of compositions exclude Joseph, and there is little question that the message they send—and one could say still send—about Joseph’s role in place in association with Jesus and Mary, shaped viewers perception of his significance within what Christians call the Holy Family and raise questions about the true nature and membership of this distinctive family unit. While some may negate the power and influence of images that only feature Mary and Jesus, imagine what you might think about a family of three people that only post images of the mother and child in their home.  While examples of such works of art can be found from the earliest Christian images to the present, three images from the Renaissance period exemplified the significance of the exclusion of Joseph.

The first is an oil on wood by the 16th century Italian painter Ambrosius Benson.  The second is an early 16th century work by the Italian artists Raphael. The third example which also makes no room for Joseph is an oil and panel by an unknown 16th century Byzantine artist.

At the same time, as we acknowledge that many artists completely excluded Joseph from their portrayals we must also note that on other occasions artists did include Joseph in their compositions. However, they marginalized his significance in their compositions by clearly separating him from Mary and Jesus. At times placing him well into the background of the composition.  As a result, it’s sometimes hard to see Joseph as well as difficult to identify him, and this is clearly evident in the present piece before us.  It is certainly the case here in this early 15th century wood cut of the adoration of the Magi by an unknown German engraver.  It is also evident in this early 15th century oil on panel of the adoration of the Magi from the altarpiece by the German Master of the Golden Table.  It is further verified in the middle 15th century painting of the adoration of the Magi from the St. Peter altarpiece by the Swiss artist, Konrad Witz.  It is also seen in this oil on panel from the last quarter of the 14th century of the Nativity at night by the Dutch painter, Geertgen tot Sint Jans.  Finally the attempt to diminish and marginalize Joseph can be seen in the oil on panel portrayal of the Holy Family in the last third of the 15th century by Martin Schongauer.

Lastly in our discussion, today we must also acknowledge that at other times artist chose to include Joseph, but also to attack his very person in character.  This led them to do among other things turn Joseph into everything from a confused and befuddled elderly figure to a diminutive servant to a crudely stereotyped unbeliever who stood outside the New Covenant of the Christian Gospel. Substantiation of this has provided in this next set of images certainly the effort to diminish the person in character of Joseph is evident in this first image which is a late 12th century manuscript illumination by an unknown German artist of the Nativity and Ecclesia from a leaf from the Kesselstadt Gospels.  It is also clear in the next two oils on panel of the Nativity which we see here, and the rest on the flight from the Gravel altarpiece both painted by the German master, Bertram.

It is also apparent in the two oils on panel of the Annunciation to Mary and her visitation with Elizabeth seen on the right side and of the presentation of the Christ and the flight into Egypt seen on the Left found on the Dijon altarpiece created by the Netherlandish artist Melchior  Broederlam and completed around the end of the 14th century.  Further proof of this can also be seen in the early 15th century drawing on paper of the adoration of the Magi for a Book of Hours created by an unknown Dutch artist. The effort to caricature Joseph is also visible in the oil one panel painted around 1430, of the marriage of Mary by their Netherlandish master of Flemalle.  Finally, evidence of the denigration of Joseph’s person and character is also manifest in the oil and panel created around 1444 of the presentation in the temple by the German master of the Polling Altar.

Although the influence of the Infancy Gospel of James and its literary years has often not been formally recognized or acknowledged in terms of their effect upon the perception in portrayal of Joseph they have probably done more than any other early Christian source to distort the portrayals of Joseph found in the earliest canonical Gospels. Therefore when we take into account, the emphasis placed upon Mary by the Lukan writer, the veneration and delineations of the writer of the Infancy Gospel of James, Jerome’s beliefs that Joseph and Mary were virgins, and his insistence that Joseph and Mary be seen as models of monastic life, as well as the many works of art of the Holy Family that followed.  It is easy to understand both why and how so many writers and artists portrayed Joseph as they did. These facts help explain why Joseph the Carpenter’s role was as limited as it was in the portrayals of the Holy Family why he was often set apart from the center of the interaction between Mary and Jesus and why unfortunately he was often represented as a disinterested and disengaged elderly figure. Thus informed by the account of the Infancy Gospel of James and it’s literary heirs and by complementary works of art, many Christians came to accept among other things several new ideas with respect to the person in role of Joseph and the character of his relationship with Mary and Jesus, ideas that were not found in the earliest Christian Gospels.

Author: Dr. Philip W. Jacobs

Author & professor of art history and Christian subjects.

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