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St Joseph Candlestick Holders

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Artifact Description

Fourteen examples of a St. Joseph Candlestick Holder were recovered from the wreck site of the SS Republic in three different sizes, including 6 large-sized figures, six medium and two small. These objects are made of hard paste porcelain, often referred to in contemporary mid-19th century literature as "bisque" or "biscuit ware". They are hollow with a glaze and white in color and bear no traces of gilt or paint. Similar candlestick holders representing the Virgin Mary holding the Baby Jesus were also found in the same context on the site, together representing the Holy Family. The two versions were likely intended as a pair.

The main body of the St. Joseph Candlestick consists of the figure of a standing male, identified as St. Joseph, holding in the left hand what appears to be a hammer or mallet and a lily flower in the right, a symbol of chastity and one of St. Joseph’s sacred attributes. The object in the left hand may alternatively represent a book, which in religious art symbolizes both learning and authorship. Unfortunately, the detail on these candlesticks is unclear, perhaps the result of the plaster molds in which they were cast losing definition with repeated use. Porcelain factories producing less expensive wares possibly used worn molds longer than higher-end operations.

The figure very probably represents "St. Joseph the Worker", who is commonly depicted with a hammer or mallet or some other instrument of work, notably a squaring tool, saw or plane. The devotion to St. Joseph under this title apparently grew in the 19th century with the advent of the Industrial Revolution.

The St. Joseph figure has a moustache, a short beard and wears a long undergarment belted at the waist with a long cord. Over this he is clad in a long robe, open at the front. The feet appear to be bare. These candlesticks exhibit what seem to be join marks from a two-piece mold, although the candle socket appears to have been attached separately. Initially depicted in paintings as an elderly man with a white beard, the devotion to St. Joseph grew stronger around the 13th century, and the cult of St. Joseph began to blossom in the 15th and 16th centuries when he appeared in art as a younger man, though still mature.

Lacking maker’s marks and factory records, the origins of these porcelain objects remain uncertain. Some appear to be similar to those bought and sold wholesale by the Swiss Benziger Brothers, whose New York City branch, founded in 1853, was in operation when the
Republic sank. However, they most closely resemble hard paste porcelain wares produced in France, very probably Limoges, where dozens of 19th-century factories supplied New York City’s import trade. Having launched the French porcelain import trade in the 1840s, the Haviland family, in particular, not only imported French wares to New York on a grand scale but also sold their imports wholesale to other American porcelain traders.

Other Details

H: 15.2 cm

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