Ingenious Mechanicks: Finding Saint Joseph

Alter of the Marienbaum Shrine, Germany.

Although Saint Joseph was a carpenter it can be a challenge to find him working as such in many paintings of the Holy Family. Prior to his rejuvenation during the Counter-Reformation he was often an ancillary figure, off to the side, as Jesus and Mary were venerated. In paintings of the Nativity is wasn’t uncommon to see Saint Joseph mingling with the livestock or peering over a wattle wall at the newborn Jesus. Sometimes Joseph was making soup.

Finding good workworking scenes was a matter of studying the details of the many paintings and manuscripts that were vetted for inclusion in “Ingenious Mechanicks.” First, I had to find Saint Joseph, then figure out what he was doing.

The painting above is a good example of how it can be difficult to find Saint Joseph. Take away the many decorative elements and look only at the painting. Two of the three Magi are in the foreground and in the center middle ground the third has just dismounted his horse. Where is  Joseph?

Adoration of the Kings, 1515, by Barthel Bartholomaeus Bruyn.

Oh, there he is, sqeezed off to the right side, holding a plane while standing at his bench. Without the bench and plane (and no halo) we wouldn’t know it was Saint Joseph.

The next three paintings were put into a timeline that I used to write my chapter (that would be Chapter 4).  The time line was used to determine possible patterns of when and where low workbenches were found.

The Merode Altarpiece, 1427-1432, workshop of Robert Campin. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Merode Altarpiece is legend among woodworkers. And it is fortunate that the three panels are still together for the viewer to see the entire story. The center panel depicting the Annunciation is the main event, however, Saint Joseph is not usually seen when the angel appears to Mary. Which makes me think if the panel with Saint Joseph was separated from the triptych would we know it was Saint Joseph? Anyway, I’m assuming Joseph lives in a different part of the house and has squeezed into his own mini-workshop. With incredible detail we can see his bench, tools, the two mousetraps already made and a work in progress.

Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1480 by the Master of the Legend of Saint Barbara (active in Brussels 1470-1500). Collection of the Palazzo Colonna, Rome.

This is a good example of how I might first encounter a painting online: someone took a photo of the painting hanging on a museum wall. It turns out this is a center panel of a triptych that has apparently been separated. After lightening this a bit the darkness to the left reveals Saint Joseph.

Detail from an article by Anne L. Williams in The Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, Vol. 10.1.

There he is. Not too far from the livestock, sitting on his staked bench, a finished mousetrap on his workbench as he starts work on another project.

Saint Luc Peignant la Vierge, est.1465-1493, by Colijin de Coter. Eglise Notre-Dame, Vieure, France.

Saint Luke is the patron saint of artists and is usually depicted writing portions of the Bible or painting a portrait of Mary and the Baby Jesus. This is a painting I put aside to study later for my own amusement, not expecting to find Saint Joseph. When I did take a closer look at the background it seemed there was a possible Saint Joseph, but the resolution was too low to make out the details. I went to the RKD database and found a photo of the painting.

Saint Joseph looking none too happy has been relegated to the garden while Mary sits for her portrait. A few tools on the ground, a plane and chisel on the workbench and he is working on ghe same project as the other two Josephs (or the same Joseph, but at different times?).

To satisfy my curiosity I had to find out what the three Josephs were making. I found the answer on a French woodworking forum: a chaufferette. If it was cold weather and you didn’t have a sixteen-pound heater cat to curl itself around your feet you needed a chaufferette, otherwise known as a foot warmer.

Chaufferettes: Right: detail from The Milkmaid by Vermeer. Left: detail from Joost Cornelis Droochsloot’s self-portrait.

A wooden chaufferette was a ventilated box lined with metal into which hot coals were put. It might have a hinged top or open side. Chaufferettes could also be made of other materials.

After Saint Joseph’s make over in the Counter-Reformation he became a more important, and often central figure, in paintings. Although he might not be engaged in woodworking in every painting he is always easy to find.

Next time I’ll tell you about two ‘Ah-ha!’ moments that we had during research for “Ingenious Mechanicks.” I believe one instance caused Christopher Schwarz to wet his pants.

Suzanne Ellison

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14 Responses to Ingenious Mechanicks: Finding Saint Joseph

  1. pavlos63 says:

    Is it possible that the icons you referred to used contemporary benches, and not historically accurate ones as used by St Joseph? The Churches in the West had gone through many schisms and by that time had very little contact with the Orthodox Church, which painted the very first icons. Their icons are distinctly different in appearance from those in the West, and may be more accurate from a historical point of view.


    • That is the central thesis of the book. When you look at a 15th-century painting of the Sacred Family, you are likely seeing 15th century benches and tools.

      That’s why we started with images from 87 A.D. and worked forward to create a timeline of workbenches.


      • @TheRainford says:

        At our local hospital — St. Joeseph’s in Nashua NH there is a nice and large wood relief carving of St Joseph planing at a bench or trestle and I always think about a lot of the research LAP folks have done. There seems to be lots of anachronistic things in this modern carving but I enjoy staring at it as its in the main waiting room/atrium for lab work.


  2. Donald Kreher says:

    I understand that it was more likely that Joseph was a stone mason then a “carpenter”, but I will leave that debate for others. What I find fascinating here is that the makers of the Icons so revered the “woodworker” that he was included in guise of Joseph.


    • jglen490 says:

      Or probably more an “artisan” than specifically carpenter or stone mason – with skills at working in materials available and needed for the work at hand.


      • Jeff Faulk says:

        A third interpretation is that ‘tekton’, the Greek term used to describe Joseph, is more of an overall term that basically describes a contractor or foreman. When you consider that he was apparently able to have his son educated enough to be literate (Christ was able to read the scrolls a few times), he was likely well off.

        That’s one way of looking at it anyway. You want a straight answer, you’ll probably have to turn up a Tardis 😉


  3. Eric R says:

    I can’t wait to buy that book just to see all your research.
    Thank you so much Suzanne.


  4. Richard Mahler says:

    Is there any symbolic significance to the mousetraps in two of your examples? Were there other paintings with mousetraps that would indicate a pattern? The medieval period surely suffered from plagues connected with rat populations (in theory) but is there any proof that people made a connection with infected flea-carrying rodents and castostophic disease?


    • saucyindexer says:

      Richard, yes there is a symbolic meaning to the mousetraps. The Augustinian metaphor has them as snares for the devil. Some think the presence of Joseph close to the scene of the Annunciation is to emphasize his marriage to Mary, in effect acting as a human shield to fool the devil, and to protect the divinity of the unborn Christ. On the other hand, there were often elements of satire and humor in depictions of the advanced age of Joseph compared to the very young Mary. The mousetrap is also viewed an an entirely different, and very earthy, type of trap.


      • Richard Mahler says:

        Thanks. Interesting and not at all what I imagined. The medieval mind is very foreign to our own, fraught with what we think are odd ideas about creatures such as cats, goats, etc., much of it as embodiments of evil or cohorts of the devil, if not indeed the devil in disguise. We may call it superstition but that is too facile an explanation of a world view we may not understand and certainly did not experience. It is also a mistake to put it down to our possesing superior intelligence or a more enlightened world view, neither of which can be supported by much that goes on in our own time. Medieval art and architecture has been a major interest of mine since my college years. Thanks again for your prompt reply.


  5. Richard Mahler says:

    There is no question that paintings in medieval/renaissance periods depicted the tools and interiors familiar when they were painted – historical accuracy was not a goal or interest where symbolism definitely was. Those individuals, churches and institutions who could afford to commission or own paintings were reluctant, due to the wish to exalt the holy family, to represent them in the clothing and interior circumstances that the scriptures go to pains to assure readers was the case. Even paintings set in stables are hardly accurate to Bethlehem two milennia ago. One of the most amusing images, in the words of the ancient carol “I Saw Three Ships”, is the idea of ships sailing into landlocked Bethlehem: symbolism trumps geography and history and we need to read it as such. As an art major 50 years ago, art history classes drilled into me that art cannot avoid cultural effect, nor should it if it speaks to the viewers for which it is intended when it is produced. You are so correct that the key to a study of tools and woodworking methods is dating the illustrated occurrences.


  6. John Vernier says:

    The mousetrap on the table in the Merode triptych seems to have been a long-lived pattern. One of exactly the same form is illustrated on plate 7 of A. J. Roubo’s L’Art du Layetier (the Art of the Crate-Maker, more or less), a volume which was published separately from his major l’Art du Menuisier. It can be viewed here:


  7. Jonathan Schneider says:

    Great article!!


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