In Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin (Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera, 1504), the marriage takes place in the forecourt of the Temple of Jerusalem. It is officiated by the mitered high priest Abiathar, flanked by Mary in red and blue and a bearded Joseph draped in yellow and proffering a ring. The Temple is a centrally planned domical structure in the best High Renaissance style and is meant to evoke the classicizing architecture of Jesus’ day.

Raphael has moved the Miracle of the Rod to center stage. The male onlookers to our right are none too happy as they have been bested by the miraculous flowering of Joseph’s rod. Joseph holds this rod, which bears a triune set of buds, as he might hold a scepter, befitting one who is about to become the spouse of the future Queen of Heaven. Two of the suitors attempt to break their rods in disgust; one is shown in the foreground bending it over his knee; another just behind bends his in an effort to snap it. Mary’s kinswomen are shown grouped at our left, but really to the preferred right—or dexter—side of the priest, while the less favored suitors are shown to his left—or sinister—side. The perspective of the scene, culminating in the open doors of the Temple, is stunning. The young Raphael was obviously quite proud of the work. He signed his name in incised letters over the Temple’s central portal—RAPHAEL URBINAS—dating it in Roman numerals, MDIIII, just below.

The legend of the Miracle of the Rod does not occur in any of the canonical Gospels. It is apocryphal and made its first recorded appearance in the Protoevangelium of James (c. 150 C.E.). There Joseph expresses his embarrassment at having been chosen for Mary this way: “I have children, and I am an old man; she is a young girl. I am afraid that I will become a laughing stock of Israel” (9:4). The Protoevangelium was also a source of the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary. Origen (c. 185–253 C.E.) attempts to defend this doctrine by emphasizing that Jesus’ “brothers” were Joseph’s sons by a previous marriage.

The story of the rod was repeated in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (c. 7th century) and thereafter received its widest dissemination through The Golden Legend (c. 1260), composed in Latin by the Italian Dominican monk Jacobus de Voragine, later Archbishop of Genoa. He was canonized by Pope Pius VII in 1816.

The Golden Legend had a great influence on the literature and art of its own and succeeding periods and was almost certainly the inspiration for Campin’s inclusion of the Miracle of the Rod in his painting. Its immense popularity, with its many human interest features, made it the most read book of the late Middle Ages. More than 800 manuscript copies survive, and it was translated into many languages, including one by William Caxton, who illustrated and “Englished” it in 1483.—T.F.