For a biography of Joos van Cleve, see the Catalogue Entry for The Holy Family
A major shift in devotional images took place in the early sixteenth century when Joseph was increasingly added to traditional Virgin and Child images, initiating a new presentation of the Holy Family. In part, this new interest in Joseph as Christ’s earthly father was due to the writings of Jean Gerson (1363–1429), chancellor of the University of Paris and Dean of Sint-Donaaskerk in Bruges. Gerson considered Joseph, the Virgin Mary, and the Christ Child as an earthly vision of the Holy Trinity. Joseph’s new key role was officially acknowledged in 1479 when Pope Sixtus IV introduced the feast of Saint Joseph into the liturgical calendar. Admiration for Joseph as the protector of Mary and Jesus grew with Apocryphal accounts of his life, namely in 1490 with the publication of the Histoire van den heiligen Joseph
, issued by the Brothers of the Common Life. Subsequently, the earliest scholarly treatise on Saint Joseph, the Summa de donis S. Josephi
by the Dominican Isidro Isolani, appeared in 1522. Joseph thus became the paradigm of humility and devotion to the Virgin and Child.
The casual manner in which the Holy Family is presented, like a scene from daily life, ushers in a new genre of painting that would be fully developed in the seventeenth century. Here the Virgin and Child appear before a parapet in a shallow space that barely allows room enough for Joseph. Christ suckles at his mother’s breast, but gazes directly at the viewer, engaging the devotee in a contemplation of the spiritual food offered by his ultimate sacrifice (Ainsworth 1998). Dressed in a blue tabard over a robe with a black collar, and wearing a dark cap beneath his straw hat, Joseph reads undisturbed from a devotional book at a lectern. His advanced age is emphasized by the necessity of reading glasses and his sagging jowls. Although the illegible text of Joseph’s book provides no further clues, certain elements in the foreground imply a religious context—a glass holding lilies represents the Virgin’s purity, the half citrus fruit with a knife references the bitterness of the Passion, and a bunch of three cherries presents the traditional fruit of paradise.The Attribution and Date:
Over thirty versions of the Holy Family
are attributed to Joos van Cleve and his workshop (Leeflang 2015, pp. 165–67). This copy, although substantially based on Joos’s designs, is not as skilled as the work of the master, as can be recognized in The Met’s earlier and quite splendid Holy Family
of around 1512–13 (32.100.57
) or the Virgin and Child
of around 1525 (1982.60.47
). The Child appears to float above his mother’s lap, the facial expressions are somewhat vague, and the modeling of the forms lacks Joos’s characteristic subtlety (due also in part to the abraded condition of the painting).
Joos’s Holy Family images became very popular, and this led to the production of numerous workshop copies. His workshop assistants used design transfer techniques, such as pouncing, to streamline production, thereby maximizing the output that could be sold on the open market. In this Holy Family
, painted by a member of Joos’s workshop, examination with infrared reflectography has revealed an underdrawing with extensive pouncing (see fig. 1 above). Nothing was left up to the creativity of the painter, as every detail was transferred and carefully followed in paint—that is, except for the lilies that were not pounced for transfer, and the cherries that also appear to have been added in paint alone. The pose of the Virgin’s left hand suggests that the original idea was to place a pink in her fingers rather than the bunch of cherries (see Technical Notes).
The workshop probably had several model drawings from which variations of this theme could be made. Leeflang (2015, pp. 165–67) proposes four different groupings of these compositions based on the pose of the Christ Child. Among the closest to The Met’s painting are two other workshop paintings of the Holy Family in the Art Institute of Chicago (fig. 3) and the National Gallery, London (fig. 4), both of the mid-1520s (see Wolff 2008, pp. 167–71, and Campbell 2014, pp. 222–33). Infrared reflectography has revealed that the London Christ was originally in a seated pose, like the model for the Met Christ, and that his posture was changed during the painting process to a standing figure. There are some additional differences between the two: the position of the Virgin’s left hand, and the drawing of the lilies in the vase. Another workshop copy related in part to the London prototype, which includes the standing Christ, can be found in the Lehman collection at The Met ( 1975.1.117
Maryan W. Ainsworth 2020
 Marjory Bolger Foster, “The Iconography of Saint Joseph in Netherlandish Art 1400–1500,” Ph.D. thesis, University of Kansas, 1978, pp. 60–63.
 Guy-M. Bertrand, “La ‘Summa de donis Sancti Josephi’ de Isidore de Isolanis, O.P.,” Cahiers de Joséphologie
8, no. 2 (1960), pp. 219–49. See also Hand 2004, pp. 54–56.
 See Campbell 2014, pp. 224–25 and figs. 1, 2.