Mary and Joseph

These painted terracotta sculptures were created around 1500 by Marco della Robbia. Marco, also known as Fra Mattia, was a devout follower of the Dominican preacher, Girolamo Savonarola, who led violent religious uprisings in Florence and spoke out against the consumption of luxury goods. Marco was also one of the sons of Andrea della Robbia who carried on the famous family business founded in the first half of the quattrocento. The della Robbias were famous for their pioneering technique of glazed terracotta statuary that was characterized by bright colours and hard shiny glazes, as opposed to painted terracotta, which achieved much subtler, naturalistic effects, as exemplified in these sculptures of Mary and Joseph. Mary on the left is recognized by a traditional red dress that was probably covered by a fabric blue mantle and veil. She has a flawless, fair complexion coloured with rosy cheeks and lips, making her appear much younger than Joseph on the right who is balding and has tanned, wrinkled skin. In 1628, both sculptures were documented in the women's church of the Ospedale degli Innocenti, leading scholars to believe they were made to greet abandoned children left at the orphanage. Mary and Joseph would have surrounded a pila (a stone crib) into which a child was set, ultimately recreating a Nativity scene. According to St. Bonaventure, the Nativity was first re-enacted in the early 1220s by St. Francis. While visiting Greccio in Italy, St. Francis called fellow friars and villagers of the town to celebrate the birth of Christ around Christmas time. He carried out a mass in front of a stone manger filled with hay and a wood sculpture of the baby Jesus, all of which were surrounded by a real ox and ass. When St. Francis embraced the wood Jesus in his arms, the sculpture miraculously came to life and the hay that had touched the now 'real' baby later cured sick animals and protected people from disease. At the Innocenti, abandoned children would have symbolically taken the place of Jesus once placed on the pila, pushed through a grated window leading into the women's church, and collected, most likely by a wet-nurse. A similar process of collecting children (with slight modifications) remained at the Ospedale degli Innocenti until 1875. Today, Mary and Joseph are housed at the Museo degli Innocenti in Florence. Photograph(s) licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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