St Joseph is an ideal character in this new hagiography. His role in Christian theology was ill-defined. Thomas Aquinas had rightly observed that his existence was indispensable to Mary's side in order to prevent this unmarried mother from being persecuted by the Jews. In return he does not have the right to a sexual life and is necessarily very old.
The counter-reform alters this vision. The sensitivity to the mysteries diminishes in favor of a more intimate and less narrative representation. Joseph has now an increased role. He is the nutritoris domini, meaning the well-intentioned educator. He is not a threat to Mary and can become young again.
On December 7 in London, Christie's sells an oil on canvas 222 x 165 cm by Murillo on the theme of St Joseph taking the hand of the Christ Child, lot 50 estimated £ 3M. This painting had been sold for $ 2.5M by Sotheby's on January 30, 1998.
Joseph is a young man, similar to the traditional iconography of Christ himself. The boy a little sulky or ill-awake is in the period before his first teachings and his first miracles. The mystical dimension is assured by the very discreet halos and by a background with angels.
This painting is not dated. It was made in neutral colors with only a more vivid light on the child's face. This simplicity in execution could relate to the latter part of the artist's career. Murillo died in 1682 at the age of 64 as a result of an accident at work.