Matthew 1:20…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife”…
Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Marriage of Sts. Mary and Joseph, marble, 18th century, Giuseppe Torretti, 1664-1743
At the beginning of the eighteenth century the Baroque period in art was ebbing as patrons favored lighter surroundings. From this a decorative trend emerged in a style that is called Rococo; a name derived from ornamental sea shells used as embellishments in architecture. Giuseppe Torretti (also spelled Torretto), from a family of artists, was active during this period but while working with other sculptors in Rome, classicism influenced his work. In the “Marriage of Sts. Mary and Joseph” shown here, Torretti presents relief figures in a Baroque-like theatrical setting yet the robes being worn are in a classical style.
The subject of the marriage of Mary and Joseph has been included regularly in scenes of the Life of the Virgin but the story is not from accounts found in the Bible. It is mentioned in apocryphal sources which were compiled and included in a fourteenth century volume called the “Golden Legend.” In this account, Mary was living in the Temple and when she turned fourteen years old the priests decided it was time for her to marry. Young unmarried male descendents of David were sought to be her husband; Joseph, though older than the others, was included. All the men who qualified were asked to bring a branch and place it on the altar. The person bringing the branch that brought forth blossoms would be Mary’s husband. After the men placed their branches on the altar, the Holy Spirit descended as a dove and the one brought by Joseph burst immediately into flowers.
Torretti places Mary and Joseph in the foreground kneeling at the altar and facing each other in front of a priest in a traditional Jewish ceremony. The bride and groom are barefooted as are the witnesses. Joseph is depicted as a bald headed man with a beard; he is holding a branch with blossoms in his left hand and Mary’s head is covered with a shawl. Because of damage from a fire several parts of the sculpture are missing; among them are the hands of the priest and those of Mary and Joseph. From a maquette (a small terra cotta preparatory sketch made by Torretti before carving this piece in marble) [click to view] we know Mary and Joseph were reaching across to each other and holding hands. The priest’s right hand was extended in a blessing.
This relief carving of the “Marriage of Sts. Mary and Joseph” is in the dado of the Chapel of our Lady of the Rosary, in the Basilica dei Giovanni e Paolo (Basilica of John and Paul), Venice, Italy. A fire destroyed the Chapel in 1867 and the sculpture was discolored and damaged. Torretti’s maquette for this piece is in the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia.
Matthew 11:2-3 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Commentary by Hovak Najarian
St. John the Baptist in the Prison, oil on canvas, c. 1565-70, Juan Fernandez de Navarrete, 1526-1579
In the mid-sixteenth century when Juan Fernandez de Navarrete was a youth, a period of study in Italy was a prerequisite for a career in art. Michelangelo, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese were still living and Italy attracted artists from throughout Europe. Navarrete, a young Spaniard, visited the major art centers in Italy and stayed in Venice to study Titian’s use of color. Then, as now, there were cultural differences between Italy and Spain and Navarrete’s interest was in gaining knowledge of techniques, not subject matter. During the Renaissance, the depiction of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses entered into Italian art but were not of interest in Spain where very few nude Venuses or classical themes were depicted. Instead, subject matter in Spain tended to depict religious themes of devotion and piety.
Spain was a world power in the sixteenth century and King Philip II, who assumed the throne of Spain in 1556, ruled an empire that included Naples, Milan, and The Netherlands; even the far off Philippine islands were named for him. He was determined to rule as a strong Catholic King and was intent on keeping Martin Luther’s teachings and the reformation out of Spain. When he was building his extensive royal monastery-palace (called El Escorial) he wanted the best artist available to paint its walls. Titian, however, was too old and his other choices, Tintoretto and Veronese, refused to live in Spain. Navarrete accepted the position and became known as the “King’s Painter.”
Navarrete’s “St. John the Baptist in the Prison” is not filled with superfluous details. John is alone in a cell with a shaft of dramatic light coming through a window fitted with iron bars. In art, John the Baptist is identified by his camel-skin clothes; he is depicted usually as being wiry, not soft as depicted here. He sometimes carries a crudely assembled cross made with a simple piece of wood split at the top with a crosspiece inserted and held together with twine. In this scene, John’s shawl has been laid aside and he is hunched bare-shouldered over a table looking at the cross. His expression suggests this is a time of prayer, contemplation, introspection, and sadness.
At the age of three, Navarrete was struck with an illness that affected his hearing. This made learning to speak difficult and he became known as El Mudo (The Mute). He compensated by communicating through drawings.