Marriage of the Virgin

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The Marriage of the Virgin by Giotto (Scrovegni Chapel)

The Marriage of the Virgin is the subject in Christian art depicting the marriage of the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph. The marriage is not mentioned in the canonical Gospels but is covered in several apocryphal sources, and later redactions, notably the 14th century compilation the Golden Legend. Unlike many other scenes in Life of the Virgin cycles (like the Nativity of Mary and Presentation of Mary), it is not a feast in the church calendar.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, essentially the same scene, with very similar iconography, is considered to represent the earlier scene of the "Entrusting of Mary to Joseph", with Joseph being made Mary's guardian by the temple authorities.

In art the subject could be covered in several different scenes, and the betrothal of Mary, with Joseph's blossoming rod, was often shown, despite its apocryphal origin. Wedding processions are also shown, especially in the Early Medieval period.

The Betrothal legend in the Golden Legend[edit]

Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, The Rods Brought to the Temple
Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, Wedding Procession of Mary

The Golden Legend, which derives its account from the much older Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, recounts how, when Mary was 14 (and living in the Temple), the high priest gathered together all the male descendents of David of marriageable age (including Saint Joseph, though he was much older than the rest) and ordered them to bring a rod. Whoever's rod blossomed into flower would become Mary's husband. After the Holy Spirit descended as a dove and caused Joseph's rod to blossom, he and Mary were married according to Jewish custom. (It is unclear whether this story was set before or after the Annunciation which, in the New Testament account, occurred after their betrothal but before their marriage.) The account, quoted in its entirety, runs thus:

When [Mary] had come to her fourteenth year, the high priest announced to all that the virgins who were reared in the Temple, and who had reached the age of their womanhood, should return to their own, and be given in lawful marriage. The rest obeyed the command, and Mary alone answered that this she could not do, both because her parents had dedicated her to the service of the Lord, and because she herself had vowed her virginity to God.... When the high priest went in to take counsel with God, a voice came forth from the oratory for all to hear, and it said that of all the marriageable men of the house of David who had not yet taken a wife, each should bring a branch and lay it upon the altar, that one of the branches would burst into flower and upon it the Holy Ghost would come to rest in the form of a dove, according to the prophecy of Isaias, and that he to whom this branch belonged would be the one to whom the virgin should be espoused. Joseph was among the men who came.... [and he] placed a branch upon the altar, and straightaway it burst into bloom, and a dove came from Heaven and perched at its summit; whereby it was manifest to all that the Virgin was to become the spouse of Joseph.

In fact, neither the Golden Legend nor any of the early apocrhyphal accounts describe the actual ceremony, and they differ as to its timing, other than that it preceded the "Journey to Bethlehem". In the Gospel of James it comes after the Annunciation, but in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, the primary source in the West, it comes before it.

Artists[edit]

The scene, or scenes, was a common component in larger cycles of the Life of the Virgin and thus very frequently found, especially in the Middle Ages; it is not found in the typical cycle in a Book of hours however. The marriage scene has been painted by, among others, Giotto, Perugino, Raphael, Ventura Salimbeni (1613, his last painting), Domenico Ghirlandaio (1485-90, at the Tornabuoni Chapel), Bernardo Daddi (now in the Royal Collection), Pieter van Lint (1640, Antwerp Cathedral), Tiburzio Baldini, Alfonso Rivarola, Francesco Caccianiga, Niccolò Berrettoni, Giovanni Jacopo Caraglio, Filippo Bellini, Veronese (in San Polo church, Venice), Giulio Cesare Milani, Franciabigio (in the Santissima Annunziata, Florence), and Giacomo di Castro.

Sources[edit]