Artibus et Historiae no. 67 (XXXIV)

2013, ISSN 0391-9064

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CAROLYN C. WILSON - St Joseph and the Process of Decoding Vincenzo Catena's Warrior Adoring the Infant Christ and the Virgin (pp. 117-136)

Catena’s large horizontal canvas in the National Gallery, London, is believed to have been painted during the last decade of the artist’s life (1521–1531) for the portego of a private Venetian palazzo. The precise subject and the circumstances of the commission remain elusive. Although the warrior wears western European armor, and is accompanied by a page dressed and coiffed in western European style, his accessories, as long recognized, include objects of apparent Islamic workmanship. The picture has been thought to commemorate an episode of conversion or diplomacy. It may alternatively constitute a sociopolitical allegory pertaining to the uneasy position of Venice with respect to her western European neighbors and the Ottoman Empire during the period to which the picture is assigned.

Seldom mentioned is the massive, pivotally placed, standing figure of St Joseph. Catena’s picture is contemporary with a distinct, long overlooked surge in activity in Venice and elsewhere in Italy, in the establishment of Joseph’s liturgical cult and the civic embrace of his patronage as heavenly mediator in troubled times. Understanding of the intensity of St Joseph’s contemporary cult in the Veneto, his evangelizing role in theology and devotion, the typology of the saint as Spouse and Protector of the Church and hence champion of the Church Militant, and his invocation in Friuli – and likely elsewhere – as protector against the Turk provides an additional avenue for our eventual deciphering of Catena’s work. Specific attention is paid to the civic embrace of St Joseph’s cult in Udine in 1500, following the Ottoman incursion of 1499; in Venice in 1512, during the Cambrai War; and its continuing importance in Venice in 1530. Two unusual aspects of Catena’s composition are addressed: Joseph’s gesture and Mary’s expression. Briefly noted are potential ecclesial symbols and other meaningful representations of St Joseph by Catena.

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