The bridegroom’s surprise

A curiosity in early Tuscan Renaissance paintings

Maria Grazia Locatelli
April 30, 2015

For centuries, painters have depicted the marriage of the Virgin Mary to Joseph (lo sposalizio della vergine). The scene is almost identical in all the paintings: the high priest stands between Mary and Joseph and joins their hands. One particular detail, however, distinguishes the scene as depicted by Tuscan painters of the early Renaissance—the gesture of a young man who stands out from the group of men behind Joseph. His arm is raised, as if ready to hit the bridegroom between the shoulders. 

 

This young man caught my attention when, many years ago, I visited the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padua and admired Giotto’s frescoes. Later, when I visited the museum of Cortona, I noticed the same gesture in Beato Angelico’s Marriage of the Virgin. I became even more perplexed when I saw, at the Museum of Bergamo, the same scene painted by the Maestro di Santa Verdiana, a Tuscan painter of the early Renaissance.

 

My curiosity remained unsatisfied until one day, by chance, I came across a little book, Reviviscenze (1927), in a library in Zurich. In it, the author, Italian folklorist Raffaele Corso, cites the explanation offered by Adolfo Venturi in his book La Madonna, (1900): the son of the high priest Abihatar was one of the suitors of the Virgin and, having been rejected, hit Joseph during the wedding ceremony. Corso points out that Giorgio Vasari, writing in the middle of the 1500s on the Lo Sposalizio della Vergine by Franciabigio, says that the custom was very popular in Tuscany in the sixteenth century as a remembrance of the wedding.

 

I wondered about this custom of punching the bridegroom: was it really connected to the legend around the wedding of Mary and Joseph or did it have other origins?

 

Anthropologists have long recognized that traditional customs and folklore go far back in time, and sometimes local customs (like festivals and legends) were conflated with (or co-opted by) the organized religion, such as the Christian Church. Was there a time, for example, when the bridegroom was struck by his father or by someone representing the paternal authority as an expression of separation from the family of origin and the founding of a new family? As time passed, did this habit transform from a serious ritual into something of a joke?

 

Rituals were important to ancient populations because they marked the passage of an individual (or group) through various phases of life. The actions involved are proof that the transition has occurred and is acknowledged by the group. Beating, pushing, punching and even flagellation are all actions that stress the separation from the old to the new. (Even in the animal world, aggressive acts of separation can be observed. Mother bears, for example, push and violently kick their cubs away when they have reached sexual maturity.) In the Roman world, for example, when the son became emancipated from paternal authority, he was either beaten with a rod or slapped. A slave who was freed from his master would also be beaten. Both rituals—emancipatio for the son, who emancipated himself, and manumissio for the slave, who was being freed by his master— marked the passage from an old to a new condition.

 

Marriage in particular involves the transition from one status to another and may involve complete separation from the family of origin. Until the last century, for example, in many villages in Abruzzo, as the bride left her home, her father would slap her on the cheek and give her a coin he had had blessed for her. The moment marked separation from the family of origin and her aggregation into a different family group.

 

Whether a ‘new’ custom built on religious legend or the remnant of an ancient one—or a bit of both—by the middle of the sixteenth century, striking the bridegroom as that young man is about to do in Giotto’s frescoes and other depictions of the marriage of the Virgin, had gotten out of hand. For Corso also notes that, along with breaking the cup from which the bride and bridegroom had drunk and kissing the bride in church, the custom of hitting the bridegroom on the shoulders during the wedding ceremony was one of the consuetudines non laudabiles (unpraiseworthy customs) outlawed by the Council of Trent (1545–63) because it often led to brawls and riots in the church, and weddings had become a sort of battlefield.

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