The serene figure of an adolescent, radiant Jesus dominates the middle of this sheet. He benevolently looks down on Joseph, his foster-father, who’s kneeling while swinging his hammer to strike down on a chisel. Jesus holds a wooden tablet in one hand and some kind of undefined chisel in the other. He’s dressed in a classical garment. His long, curly hair adorn a beardless, boyish face of exquisite beauty. He resembles the God Apollo and the bright halo around his head only strengthens this association.
A modest Joseph is actively involved while Jesus, although dominant in the composition, displays a more passive attitude. Some carpenter’s tools are on the left: a saw, another hammer and chisel, while there’s a chest and some beams to identify the space as the workshop of Joseph.
According to the gospel of Matthew (13:55) Joseph, the husband of Mary, Mother of Christ, is identified as a carpenter. In the gospel of Mark (6:3), Jesus himself is also named a carpenter. It was the costum at the time that the son would learn the trade of the father. In Nazareth, where the Holy Family resided, Joseph had his workshop and until the beginning of the public life of Christ at age 30, it was believed He worked together with his foster-father.
During the contra-reformation the figure of Joseph becomes more and more popular. This comes forth from a stronger focus on family values within the Catholic Church at the time. The Holy Family will now demonstrate a strong moral example of virtue and harmony for everybody to follow. Joseph is given his own altars in churches and specific devotional attention, closely connected to the upbringing of the divine boy. To make this new role more acceptable his age drops by several decades. Until the 16th century he’s represented as an old man but now he gets much closer in age to the Virgin Mary.
This counter-proof of Christ in his father’s workshop is closely connected to the new devotion towards Joseph. Although this scene is rarely represented in altarpieces it does appear in the widely spread devotional lilerature. Often Christ is working on a small wooden cross, prefiguration of his crucifixion, with Mary and Joseph nearby.
In some devotional literature, especially popular with Flemish and Dutch catholics in the 16th thru 18th centuries, scenes from the childhood of Christ are set in the setting of his father’s workshop. An excellent example of this approach are some engravings by Abraham van Merlen (1579-1659) showing the Holy Family in a domestic setting with allegorial texts in Latin to educate the pious reader. One of these engravings even resembles the composition of this counter-proof where Jesus is more dominant and some years older (1).
In my opinion this counter-proof was meant as the model for an engraving, probably with a strong devotional purpuse in mind, probably in a publication. More research has to be done to establish if this project was ever realized.
Guus van den Hout MA
Antwerp, March 2019
(1) Abraham van Merlen, Christ helping Joseph at carpentry, engraving, Antwerp, c. 1640, h. 101 mm x w. 73 mm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam RP-P-OB-48.101