Joseph holding a green branch as a sign of his virginity
Year mention: 1617
Acceptable errors
Not corresponding to Scriptures
Not corresponding with Church teaching/dogma

Painters interpret Joseph holding a green branch in the wrong way

Molanus, Johannes
Jacob Binck - Joseph with Christ Child, 1510-1569
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam,

In book 2, chapter 29, Molanus continues his examination started in the preceding chapters of what constitutes a dangerous error and not and how to handle them. This chapter focuses on deviations and other questions regarding iconography that clearly do not propose a mistake. Several examples regarding the depiction of Joseph are presented to enlighten the position taken by Molanus in this matter, which can be summarised as follows: certain iconographies might have their origin in apocryphal sources, however, this does not mean that these are the only sources or that they are necessarily incorrect. These examples are not chosen randomly by Molanus, they all seem to constitute matters addressed by others before and sometimes condemned as errors, while according to him, it is not the depiction but the attributed meaning that needs correction.
The second case discussed by Molanus in chapter 29 is the depiction of Joseph holding a green branch in his hand. Molanus comments that this iconography was derived by painters from Jerome’s treatise against Helvidius, a work held in low esteem by the commentators, containing only fables, as Molanus says. The problem addressed here is the meaning attributed to the green branch, this has to be corrected according to the author and should indicate the virginity of Joseph since Christ was born out of a virgin union. This reading is further supported by Molanus’ reference to the story of the Holy Birgitte, whose virginity was confirmed by the wood of the altar turning green after she touched it.

“In fact, it happens that in paintings it is not the representation itself, but its meaning that needs to be corrected. Thus, the same St. Joseph is sometimes painted with a green branch in his hand: the painters have taken inspiration from the treatise on the Nativity of the Blessed Mary, which is published with the works of Jerome, and from which they have also drawn other elements. But although competent men are not unaware that this treatise contains only fables and is unworthy of Jerome, as the erudition of certain authors has pointed out, the fact speaks for itself: one could say that one that we should not understand this small branch as the painters see it in the fable mentioned above, but that its meaning refers to the virginity of Joseph. For it is likely that Joseph himself had been a virgin all the time for which the virgin Son was born from a virgin union, as the blessed Jerome said to Helvidius. For my part, I have not understood this branch otherwise, referring to what St. Bede wrote about the holy Birgitte: ‘when she has touched the wood of the altar to prove her virginity, it turned green.’ It was only later that I realised from the treatise that painters interpreted this representation differently.”

“Aliquando vero in picturis corrigenae sunt non ipsae picturae, sed earum significatio. Sic quodidem Sanctus Iosephus pingatur quandoque cum virente ramusculo in manu, sumpserunt pictores ex tractatu de nativitate Beatae Mariae, qui est in operibus Hieronymi, ex quo et alia quaedam habent. Sed cum docti sciant fabulosum esse hunc tractatum et Hieronymo indignum prout scriptores quidam eruditissime annotarunt et res ipsa loquitur: dici potest per hunc ramusculum non esse intelligendum id quod pictores ex praedicta fabula intenderunt, sed referendum eum esse ut significet virginitatem Ioseph, nam ut ex virginali coniugo virgo filius nasceretur, etiam ipsum Ioseph semper virginem fuisse, verisimile est. De quo beatissimus Hieronymus contra Heluidium. Neque ego unquam aliter intellexi hunc ramum, iuxta illud quod de sancta Brigida scribit Beda, cum lignum altaris in testimonium virginitatis tetigisset, viride factum est. Postea tamen animadverti ex tractatu allegato, quod pictores aliud intenderint.”

Quoted Authorities

Jerome Melchior Cano, Bibliotheca sancta, book 11, ch. 6, reg. 1, book 2 St. Bede, Martyrologio, Kalendis Februarii

(Virgin), green branch, Josep, virginity

Date mention

Historical Location

Iconclass Number

Molanus, De historia sanctarum imaginum et picturarum (1617), book 2, ch. 29, 109-110

Molanus 1996, 207-208.

Permanent Link