23 January 2013

23 January - Espousals of the Blessed Virgin

In some of the old calendars, today commemorated the wedding day of Mary and Joseph.  People are always interested in weddings, and the espousals of the Virgin received a goodly amount of embellishment.  

 The Golden Legend recounted:
“And in the fourteenth year of her [Mary’s] age, the bishop commanded in common that the virgins that were instituted in the temple, and had accomplished the time of age, should return to their houses and should after the law be married.  All the others obeyed his commandment, but Mary answered that she might not do so because her father and mother had given her all to the service of our Lord.  And then the bishop was much angry because he durst not make her to break her avow against the scripture, that saith: ‘Avow ye vows and yield them to God’.  And he durst not break the custom of the people.

And then came a feast of the Jews, and he called all the ancient Jews to council, and showed to them this thing.  And this was all their sentence: “That in a thing so doubtable, that counsel shall be asked of our Lord.” And then went they all to prayer, and the bishop, that was gone to ask counsel of our Lord.  Anon came a voice out of the oracle and said that, “all they that were of the house of David that were convenable [suitable] to be married and had no wife, that each of them should bring a rod to the altar, and his rod that flourished, and, after the saying of Isaiah, the Holy Ghost sit in the form of a dove on it, he should be the man that should be desponsate [betrothed] and married to the Virgin Mary.

And Joseph, of the house of David, was there among the others, and to him it seemed to be a thing unconvenable, a man of so old age as he was to have so tender a maid, and whereas others brought forth their rods he hid his.  And when nothing appeared according to the voice of God, the bishop ordained for to ask counsel again of our Lord. And he answered that, “he only that should espouse the virgin had not brought forth his rod”.  And then Joseph by the commandment of the bishop brought forth his rod, and anon it flowered, and a dove descended from heaven thereupon, so that it was clearly the advice of every man that he should have the virgin.

And then he espoused the Virgin Mary, and returned into his city of Bethlehem for to ordain his meiny [attendants] and his house, and for to fetch such things as were necessary.  And the Virgin Mary returned unto the house of her father with seven virgins, her fellows of her age, which had seen the demonstrance of the miracle.

According to the Protoevangelium of James, when Mary was twelve, the priest Zacharias inquired of the Lord concerning her, and an angel came to him and said, "Zacharias, Zacharias, go out and assemble the widowers of the people, and let them bring each his rod, and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be.” And Zacharias did as the angel commanded, and made proclamation accordingly.  Joseph the carpenter, a righteous man, threw down his axe, and taking his staff in his hand, ran out with the rest. The high priest took their rods and entered into the temple to pray; when he returned to the gathered suitors, there was no sign forthcoming until Joseph received his rod, from which a white dove issued and settled on him. Then the high priest said to him, "You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord." At first, Joseph refused, citing his advanced age, but the priest reminded him of the fate of those who contradicted the Lord, and Joseph succumbed.  He took her home to his house, and said to her, "Behold, I have received you from the temple of the Lord, and now I will leave you in my house, for I must go and follow my trade of building. I will return to you, and meanwhile the Lord be with you and watch over you."

The visions of Catherine Emmerich included the betrothal and the wedding of Mary and Joseph.  In one vision, she heard two widows who had attended the wedding in their youth describing Mary’s wedding dress and recalled:
“She wore a white woolen undergarment without sleeves: her arms were wrapped round with strips of the same stuff, for at that time these took the place of closed sleeves.  Next she put on a collar reaching from above the breast to her throat.  It was encrusted with pearls and white embroidery, and was shaped like the under-collar worn by Archos the Essene, the pattern of which I cut out not long ago.  Over this she wore an ample robe, open in front.  It fell to her feet and was as full as a mantle and had wide sleeves.  This robe had a blue ground covered with an embroidered or woven pattern of red, white, and yellow roses interspersed with green leaves, like rich and ancient chasubles.  The lower hem ended in fringes and tassels, while the upper edge joined the white neck-covering.  After this robe had been arranged to fall in long straight folds, a kind of scapulary was put over it, such as some religious wear, for instance the Carmelites.  This was made of white silk with gold flowers: it was half a yard wide, and was set with pearls and shining jewels at the breast.  It hung in a single width down to the edge of the dress, of which it covered the opening in front.  The lower edge was ornamented with fringes and beads.  A similar width hung down the back, while shorter and narrower strips of the silk hung over the shoulders and arms; these four pieces, spread out round the neck, made the shape of a cross… The full sleeves, over which the shoulder-pieces of the scapulary projected, were lightly held together by bracelets above and below the elbow… They caused the full sleeves to puff out at the shoulders, elbows, and wrists… Over all this she wore a sky-blue mantle, shaped like a big cloak, which in its turn was covered by a sort of mourning cloak with sleeves made after a traditional fashion… This cloak fell back over the shoulders, came forward again at the sides, and ended at the back in a pointed train.  Its edge was embroidered with gold flowers.” 

You can read the full account here, with further descriptions of her hairstyle, shoes, accessories, and trousseau.

Joseph’s outfit merited a much shorter description: “Joseph wore a long full coat of pale blue, fastened down the front from breast to hem with laces and bosses or buttons.  His wide sleeves were also fastened at the sides with laces; they were much turned up and seemed to have pockets inside.  Round his neck he wore a kind of brown collar or rather a broad stole, and two white strips hung over his breast, like the bands worn by our priests, only much longer.”


“The Designation of Joseph” from The Hours of Catherine of Cleves (15th century)

“Espousals of the Blessed Virgin with Joseph” from The Hours of Catherine of Cleves (15th century)
Artists have differed on the age and personal appearance of Joseph.  Early painters thought that Joseph should be represented as an old, nearly decrepit man with a white beard and nearly senile countenance – possibly because some of the early ‘authorities’ on the subject claimed that he was eight-four years old and a widower when he espoused Mary.  Later artists argued that the head and protector of the Holy Family must have been a man of mature age, but still strong and able to work at his trade, and portrayed him accordingly.

“Mary in her wedding dress” from The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary: From the Visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich.  Woodcut from the 1852 German edition.

“St. Joseph in his wedding garments” from The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary: From the Visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich. Woodcut from the 1852 German edition.