Satirizing the Sacred: St. Joseph and Humor in Northern European Art, ca. 1300-1530

Williams, Anne, History of Art and Architecture - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Goedde, Lawrence, Department of Art, University of Virginia

Humor and satire were very much relevant, and even beneficial, for one movement in early modern Christianity, but late medieval theologians and popes were not interested in supporting a devotion that made light of its own saints. Surviving art, however, tells a different story—of Saint Joseph of Nazareth, whose popularity among the laity rose exponentially between ca. 1300 and 1530, while artists and patrons produced and consumed religious images that sometimes highlighted the hilarity of the saint’s circumstances with surprising verve. In this study, religious iconography from Germany, France, and the Low Countries is interpreted through the lens of contemporary ‘secular’ iconographic trends, as well as religious plays, legends, hymns, and jokes. Depictions of Joseph attest to the humorous and bawdy as inextricable parts of the saint’s cult, even as he came to be taken more seriously as an object of popular devotion. The material and literary evidence reveals that the saint could be, for his late medieval devotees, a simultaneously beloved, revered, venerated, and hilariously ridiculous figure. These findings reconcile two strands of interpretation that have polarized the saint into distinct early and late manifestations, one comical and derogatory and the other idealized. Scholars of the saint’s history, and of early modern history in general, have treated the power and purposes of humor too categorically, incorrectly considering the sober ecclesiastical and the ‘irreverent’ popular consciousnesses as occupying completely separate realms in the late Middle Ages.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
saint joseph, humor, satire, late medieval, renaissance, early modern, art history
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