MASTER of the Housebook
(active 1475-90 in Mainz)
The Holy Family with the Rose-bushc. 1490
Drypoint (unique impression), 142 x 115 mm
One of the most delightful and surprising depictions of the Holy Family is an etching by the Master of the Housebook, which survives in only a single impression. The family is outdoors, in an enclosed garden. In fifteenth-century Rhineland art, the Virgin and Child are often depicted in this hortus conclusus, (a garden close-locked) that symbolizes Mary's virginity, sometimes with a rose hedgerow, another of the Virgin's symbols. Almost every landscape detail in this etching is a Marian symbol that features in one or more hymns to her. There is the church in the background, of course, but there is also a tower, the turris Davidica, and on the left the gateway to Heaven, the porta coeli. The harbour in the background may be a reference to Mary as a safe haven, the apple tree beside the roses may allude to Original Sin and to the redemptive roles of Mary as the new Eve and Christ as the new Adam.
All of these motifs can be read symbolically, and probably were by some of the artist's contemporaries. However, there is an enormous difference between this and earlier scenes incorporating symbols. Garden, bench, gateway, tower, harbour and church are no longer isolated motifs, but together form a natural setting for this scene of family domesticity. The viewer can recognise their world as his own. That this naturalness was deliberate is particularly clear from Joseph's involvement with Jesus. He has been given a role halfway between simpleton and paterfamilias. He is no longer a marginalised, ineffective doubter, but a playful father interacting with his son. He is impishly distracting Jesus's attention by playing a game with the love apples from the Song of Songs. Jesus has lost His usual role as the Saviour communicating with the viewer, or as His mother's child. The landscape and the addition of Joseph are above all an attempt to create a suitable setting for an intimate scene of family life, one in which the believer devoutly saying his prayers can feel involved.