Once upon a time, in Provence, the best one could hope for was a peaceful death. An easy death was rare; violent, painful ways to die were many: One could die from plague as happened in Arles between 1348 and 1350, when the population of the city was cut in half. One could die from starvation. Or from marauding rogue soldiers as happened during the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) when the defeat of the French Army forced the cities of Provence to build walls and towers against the former soldiers. Or from the many wars of religion that lasted over 35 years. Your village could be sieged as it was in Ménerbes (1573–78), or you could be massacred as happened in April 1540 when more than 3,000 where killed in five days in the villages of the Luberon.
One prayed for a peaceful, easy death in relative old age. And thus La Mort de Saint Joseph (“The Happy Death of Saint Joseph”) became a favorite theme for Provençal painters. Our very own église Saint Luc in Ménerbes proudly displays Gilles Garcin’s La Mort de Saint Joseph, 1698.
La Mort de Saint Joseph by Jean Daret, 1649, hangs in the church at Lambesc. Similar paintings of La Mort de Saint Joseph can be found in the chapelle Sainte-Marthe in Avignon, the churches in Rognes, Varages, Ansouis, Lançon, Aix, Isle sur la Sorgue, Bedarrides, Cavaillon, Riez, Martigues, Montfavet etc.
Jane MacAvock, a recent resident at the Dora Maar House, taught me and others about the recurring theme of La Mort de Saint Joseph in Provence and its powerful symbolism for the region. An expert on French painters of the 17th and 18th centuries, and Provençal painter Jean Daret in particular, Jane shared insights that allowed me to see Provence in a different way, to imagine a life quite apart from the luxurious ease of summer and the famously beautiful light.
As Jane explained: “The episode of the Death of Saint Joseph isn’t mentioned in the Bible, but was written about in the 4th or 5th century by Coptic monks and revived in the 16th century by Isodorus Isolanus, who gives a detailed description of Joseph’s death. Unlike most saints, he didn’t die the violent death of a martyr by beheading, burning, crucifixion or stoning, but instead passed away peacefully in his own bed, surrounded by his loved ones. An angel appeared to Joseph, who was in good health despite his advanced age (111 according to some) to warn him of his impending departure, so he was able to prepare himself and be ready when the time came. This is the scene painted by so many Provençal artists where we see Joseph with Mary and Jesus, one of them pointing towards heaven and two angels, there to carry his soul to heaven when the time came. Saint Joseph thus became the patron saint of 'La bonne mort'—in other words, a death that was peaceful and in a state of grace, the deceased having received the final sacrament of Extreme Unction before death, not always practical or possible in violent times.”
Recently our old family dog, Queenie, was dying. She had come to us about 12 years ago when Eliza was a baby, and the two grew up together. With Queenie on her last legs, I longed for her to go peacefully. Her final night, as she was lying under the almond tree in the field in front of our home, Eliza and I sat next to her, and the cat and the puppy all came to say goodbye. I thought of Joseph with his family gathered around him. It was a lovely, cool, starry night; I could imagine angels in the air above us. I thought then of the power of the idea of a peaceful death. I told Queenie she could go now, that she had helped Eliza grow past infancy, she had protected us and kept us safe for over a decade.
The next day Queenie died in her favorite place; it was for me the blessing of La Mort de Saint Joseph. The ultimate I could hope for my beloved dog.