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The Marriage of Joseph and Mary

The Marriage of Joseph and Mary

Pietro di Cristoforo Vanucci called Il Perugino (1448-1523). Musée des Beaux-Arts – Caen. Around 1499-1504.

The Betrothal of the Virgin

Raffaello Sanzio called Raphael (1483-1520). Pinacoteca di Brera – Milan. 1504.

Pietro Perugino’s ‘Marriage of Joseph and Mary’, also called the ‘Sposalizio’, is a masterpiece of idealised representation. Perugino has created in this painting, as in other pictures of his hand, an ideal world of crystallised emotions in which only beautiful people live happily together.

A priest is bringing the hands of Joseph and Mary to touch. All is order and symmetry in this painting. Few people seem to live in this imaginary urban setting; the stairs and the parvis of the temple are almost devoid of humans. Here, one can walk in silence without being disturbed by others. The spirit is free in this ample space so that fresh and original thoughts come quickly to mind. The mind is uplifted by the grandeur of the scene. The temple is open to that same grand space that pervades the scene on all sides. It is a structure where the air can flow through, swift as ideas. It is huge, yet light. Lightness of spirit and modesty are the general themes of the scene.

The building is very symmetrical. Symmetries are also to be found in the group of people and in the colours. The priest is in green. Mary is dressed in a classical robe of warm red for affection, and in her blue maphorion cloak. This blue is reverted in Joseph’s robe. His cloak is a luxuriant gold. This gold is reflected in the robe of the woman next to Mary. Then further from Mary we find back again her own colours of red and blue. These are not the harsh red and blues, but wonderfully soft hues. On Joseph’s side stand the men, to balance the women of Mary’s side. The green of the priest is found back on the left, together with the same red and blue colours of the women. The robes and cloaks of the spouses and of the bystanders could be considered of any age, so also of the Renaissance or of biblical origin. The way their hair is done, however, and their headdresses are fantasies. So is the hexagonal temple in front of which the ceremony takes place.

The picture of Pietro Perugino contains three bands. The lower band of the marriage is like a frieze on an ancient temple. The next, smaller band is set at some distance, in perspective, with the people quite smaller than in the lower band. Yet, since they are all at the same distance, they form a distinct layer. The final band is the temple. The picture itself forms an architecturally constructed whole in which three-dimensional space is easily generated. Perugino has added receding lines in the marble of the temple parvis to create powerful perspective. The picture gives an immediate impression of wideness and of open space. The viewer’s eye goes deep into the far. This is an effect rarely generated in pictures in such an obvious and forceful way. The viewer forgets readily that he or she is looking at a flat canvas.

The painting was ordered first to Pinturicchio in 1489 for the Chapel of the Holy Lamb in the cathedral of Perugia F11 . Finally, Pietro Perugino received the commission for his hometown in 1499 and he finished the panel around 1504. His picture is a religious theme, but it is treated almost as a cool classicist theme of antiquity, along the ideas of the new Renaissance. Perugino positioned his figures in a strange world, not an alien world but an idealised one, which could be his personal idea of heaven or his individual view of an ideal world for humans.

When the French revolutionary armies entered into Italy, the ‘Sposalizio’ was taken away by the Commissaire Tinet with the complicity of the French painter Gros and transported to France. The painting was a ‘Saisie Révolutionnaire’, deposed at the Louvre never to return to Perugia. When the Louvre distributed pictures to fifteen university towns of France, the representative of Caen, a professor of the Drawing School of the Calvados called Fleuriau, preferred this sublime masterpiece of Pietro Perugino to a landscape by Salvatore Rosa F11 . It was a lucky choice. Due to his good taste, the Museum of Fine Arts of the town of Caen now possesses one of the major masterpieces of Italian art.

The ‘Golden Legend’ tells that when Mary was fourteen, she was still reared in the Temple. The high priest announced that the maidens should return home to be legally joined with their husbands. But Mary refused because she had vowed to virginity for God. The high priest then consulted the Lord and a voice said to him that each unmarried but marriageable man from the house of David should bring a branch to the altar. One of the branches would bloom and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove would perch upon its tip. Joseph was of such an age already that he thought it incongruous to bring forward his branch. So, nothing happened when all the suitors came. The high priest consulted the Lord a second time. The voice responded that the only man who had not brought forward his branch was the right one. Therefore, Joseph now came to the Temple. Joseph’s rod blossomed and a dove came from heaven to perch upon itG 49 .

This was a sign from heaven that Joseph was the chosen one. The flowering rod is a symbol of fertility; only from Joseph could Mary have offspring. In Perugino’s painting reference is made to this old legend. Joseph is depicted with a flowering rod. A suitor next to Joseph is breaking his infertile rod and so are some of the suitors in the background. The Council of Trent condemned this theme in the sixteenth century, even though some of the tale was attributed to Jerome G41 . We see here again miraculous stories, the flowering of the rod and the sign of the dove, as were associated with Mary.

Pietro Perugino was born in Città delle Pieve, close to Perugia around 1445 and he died in Fontignano in 1523. Perugia lies in Umbria, close to Tuscany. He was a student of Piero della Francesca and of Andrea del Verrocchio and himself a master of Raffaello Sanzio called Raphael. These are some of the most famous names of Italian art. Perugino was called after his hometown. When still a young man the Pope asked him to come to Rome to work at the frieze of the Sistine chapel, where he made for instance the ‘Handing over of the Keys to Saint Peter’. This fresco of 1481 contains the same temple and the same perspective view over the marble parvis as the ones in the ‘Sposalizio’. The strong perspective Perugino used he must have learned from his master Piero della Francesca, who studied geometric perspective and mathematics and who even wrote a treatise on the theory of perspective. Pietro Perugino worked mainly in Perugia, also some in the Provence, the southern region of France. He must have known the books and ideas of Alberti, the Renaissance writer on architecture. He also knew the art of perspective very well and used both elements of rigorous symmetrical architecture and of space-creating perspective in many of his paintings. By doing this he created ideal worlds that could be the right picture of humanist towns as only the Renaissance could imagine.

Pietro Perugino created the purest form of idealised, spiritual painting. His ‘Sposalizio’ is a picture of the mind, of an intelligence whose vision was one of order, of symmetry and of composition ruled by geometry. Perugino’ figures are drawn in strict lines, and static poses are dominant. His pictures are the finest examples of the exaltation of spiritual figurative art. But is the ‘Sposalizio’ a religious painting? Its aims and commission certainly were. But we feel another objective too. Perugino painted an aristocratic world with imaginary people and the ‘Marriage’ of figures of the Bible is only an occasion for the artist to express a very personal vision. Il Perugino painted a view of an ideal world as he would have liked to live in or as he imagined the spiritual characters could best be depicted. Whereas paintings of the previous periods such as of the fourteenth or thirteenth centuries were purely religious representations of Jesus or of the Virgin, Pietro Perugino already subverted the religious theme to a very personal expression and representation of humans and their new aspirations of the Italian Renaissance. Even though his representation remained in an ideal, elevated setting Perugino took one step further in the evolution away from purely religious images.


Raffaello Sanzio’s picture of the ‘Betrothal of the Virgin’ is almost a copy of Perugino’s. Raphael’s canvas is signed 1504 so it is somewhat later than Perugino’s. In 1504 Raphael was twenty-one years old and we should not forget that his master was the same Perugino. Raphael has used the same figure of the high priest as Perugino and the same scene in front of the wide marble square and temple. Raphael may have seen his master make the Sposalizio and tried his own skills in a copy of his master.

Raphael’s’ colours are somewhat warmer. The young painter has used other colours than Perugino, less bright blues but deeper yellow tones, reds and greens. Thus the blue robes of Joseph and Mary are now darker, softer green. Raphael inverted Joseph and Mary and the figures are somewhat more dynamic. Thus the high priest inclines his head to look at the wedding ring that Joseph is about to put around Mary’s finger and a suitor is seen in the foreground to the right, breaking his useless branch in an energetic movement that is entirely absent from Perugino’s picture. Raphael here also inverted the figures since such a suitor and similar scene is on the other side of the priest in Perugino’s picture, there more in the background.

Raphael’s polygonal temple is more elegant. Renaissance decorative elements have been added around the cupola and the building is more on a human scale, less imposing and lower.

Overall one must admire the grace of the figures of Raphael. Perugino’s figures seem squat, robust and rustic as compared to the refined elongated silhouettes of Raphael. Mary reclines her body in an elegance that Perugino misses. Joseph has an aristocratic, refined stand. All faces are finer and nobler. Perugino’s high priest is an old man, shown with hanging shoulders and sleepy eyes. Raphael made him a more active participator. Raphael has also placed fewer figures around Mary and Joseph than Perugino, thus creating space, rest and allowing more attention to the marrying couple.

Perugino had the idea and vision. Raphael completed the vision to a perfection of art, to the soft harmony of a gentler mind and a more sensitive soul.

Raphael’s picture almost had the same fate as Perugino’s. It was commissioned for the Saint Joseph chapel of the church of San Francesco at Cità di Castello and it remained there until 1798. Then the city was ordered to give the painting to Giuseppe Lechi, a general of Napoleon. Through various sales it landed in the beginning of the nineteenth century in the Milanese Pinacoteca di Brera collection I7 .

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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