Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. (Matthew 1:19) King James Version
The capitals of Notre Dame du Port in Clermont-Ferrand are justly celebrated and worthy of extended analysis for their often complex iconography. One of these is an illustration of a completely human moment in the New Testament – the Annunciation, the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus, the Son of God. This particular capital shows the reaction of Joseph to the news that his wife was carrying a child.
The story of the capital is told on the inscription that begins on the bevelled abacus, the slab that forms the top section of the capital and continues on the two phylacteries held by the flanking angels. The phylactery was used in medieval art to represent speech. In this case, the words read Joseph voluit occulte dimitere eam, or “Joseph decided to relinquish her.”
In other words, Joseph, humiliated by Mary’s pregnancy, was planning to renounce his wife. But the narrative of Matthew 1:20 continues, “But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.”
The sculptor who created the capital, however, contributed to the story in two ways. First, he showed Joseph scratching his head in confusion to the mysterious events, a wonderfully human touch to a complex situation. Secondly, he showed the angel seizing Joseph by the beard to stop him from renouncing Mary. Joseph’s body is headed one direction with firm resolve but his head is yanked backwards toward the angel.
But the sculptor has not finished yet. Under the horizontal line on the left phylactery is a curious additional text reading RTBRTVS me fecit, or “Robertus made me”, almost certainly the signature of the sculptor who created this and many of the other capitals.
Like the signature of Gofridus at Chauvigny, the placement is of great interest. Robertus chose to sign his name to this example of the most human reaction to the mysteries of faith.