Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household
25th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday March 12-Sunday March 13, 2005
Divine Domesticity in Franciscan Praises of the Sanctity of St. Joseph

Chara Armon

Joseph, spouse of Mary, was a problematic figure in Christian belief until a group of Italian Franciscan friars composed high praise of his merits in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. Peter John Olivi (1248/9-1298), Ubertino da Casale (c. 1259-post 1329), Bernardino da Siena (1380-1444), and several of Bernardino's followers focused their enthusiasm on what they imagined to be Joseph's tender paternal behavior toward Jesus. Crafting in their Biblical commentaries and sermons highly affective domestic scenes in which Joseph kissed, cuddled, and watched over Jesus, the writers of this Franciscan school not only succeeded in stimulating popular devotion for Joseph, they also documented their own assumptions about the proper contours of father-son relationships and familial intimacy. Olivi wrote of Joseph's reverent love for his naked infant son, while his student Ubertino imagined Jesus talking babytalk to Joseph. The Franciscan writers commented on the continual intimacy shared by the Holy Family and imagined Joseph, Mary, and Jesus carrying out household chores together. Bernardino da Siena's follower, Roberto Caracciolo da Lecce (1425-1495), delivered a sermon in which he described Joseph carrying Jesus as the boy slept, working to obtain food for his son, and being "inflamed with love for Christ when he learned that the son of God … called him father." The famous Franciscan preacher Bernardino da Feltre (1439-1494) portrayed Joseph as both a tender father to Jesus and a paterfamilias who possessed dominion over Mary, while his colleague Bernardino da Busto (c. 1450-c. 1513) regaled crowds of faithful Italians with images of Joseph washing Jesus's linens and building fires to warm him. The Franciscan writers additionally described Joseph's tremendous stature in heaven and his ability to intercede for the faithful, making such claims on the strong foundation of virtue they had created for Joseph via affective images of his competent parenting. These combined descriptions of domestic holiness and celestial power can be shown to have fostered lay devotion to Joseph in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian towns.

In constructing Joseph's fatherhood as a moral and spiritual category, not a biological one, the Franciscans were able not only to argue for Joseph's genuine paternal relationship to Jesus, but also to demonstrate their view that profoundly affective emotions were acceptable for fathers and even were key features of paternity. The friars insisted both that authentic paternal behavior involves loving, caregiving, and displaying affection, and that in fathers these behaviors should be understood as masculine rather than feminine. In the Franciscan texts on Joseph, in fact, Joseph's virility comes from his tender and protective fathering, not from sexual behavior, of which he was said to have none.

Several of the Franciscan sermons on Joseph are documented as having been delivered publicly and later published. The friars' known concern for contemporary morality gives reason to believe that they deliberately offered Joseph as both a normative and didactic figure to their late-medieval and Renaissance contemporaries. Virtuously married, faithful to his wife and son, and protective and compassionate, Joseph represented Franciscan preachers' ideal of male behavior. This paper explores the Franciscan images of Joseph and their sources, the apparent theological and cultural reasons for offering them to lay listeners, and the relationship between clerical recommendations regarding familial relationships, and realities in late-medieval and Renaissance families. The paper further discusses the role of depictions of Joseph's masculine parental behavior as a response to the growth of feminine sanctity in late-medieval religion, showing how Franciscan commentary on Joseph's domestic virtues functioned on numerous levels of religious and social discourse.


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