Gerard David is known as the last of the 'Flemish Primitives'. Although born in the northern Netherlands, he moved to Bruges as a young man, and most of his work expresses the impassive, unmannered, microscopically realistic approach peculiar to south Netherlandish art in the time of Jan van Eyck. David was adept at combining the artistic styles of several important south Netherlandish predecessors, adapting, for example, the compositions of van Eyck and the technique of Hugo van der Goes. He was also influenced by Hans Memling, whose example led him to refine and polish his cruder northern Netherlandish style and to adopt the popular theme of the Virgin and Child enthroned.
It is hard to form a chronology of David's oeuvre, as the only dated works are from the period 1498-1509. Moreover, there are no signed works. However, there are approximately 60 paintings that can be securely attributed to him: about half are single devotional panels, mainly Epiphanies and scenes from the Passion of Christ. There are about ten religious triptychs and one or two polyptychs, but only one secular work, the Cambyses diptych in the Groeningemuseum, and only one surviving portrait, the Portrait of an Ecclesiastic in the National Gallery, London. In contrast to Memling, who had a very large private clientele, David worked primarily for churches, monasteries, convents, societies and magistrates. By January 1484, David had settled in Bruges and became a master of the Guild of Saint Luke there. He became dean of the guild in 1501 and from this year received a series of important altarpiece commissions.
In 1515 a "Meester Gheraert van Brugghe" (almost certainly Gerard David) became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp, by then a more dynamic center than Bruges, and it is likely here that David executed the present painting, possibly with some studio assistance. David's late work, into which category the present painting falls, is characterized by an almost intimate character, with soft, sfumato-like rendering of volumes and misty, subdued coloring, rich in contrast, anticipating that of Adriaen Isenbrandt (in fact, Friedländer, op. cit., 1975, XI, plate 144, lists one of the copies of this composition as by Isenbrandt). Other paintings from this period include the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Museo del Prado, Madrid; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), the various versions of the Virgin with the porridge spoon (for example, the Aurora Trust painting), and the Adoration of the Magi (National Gallery, London). Also recognizable is David's characteristic rendering of faces, slightly flat with high foreheads, almond-shaped eyes, thick eyelids, straight mouths and pronounced chins.
The composition is paralleled in a number of respects in other works by the artist. The type of Saint Joseph recalls one of the Magi in David's Adoration of the Magi (National Gallery, London; Friedländer, op. cit., VIb, pl. 193), but in the present panel, as the highly original depiction of the two rotting apples confirms, the elderly father who gazes to the spectator has some premonition of the Child's future fate. The pendant of the London picture, the Deposition (Friedländer, pl. 201), shows the Virgin resting her face on that of the dead Christ and, despite its Byzantine antecendents the way the infant Christ leans against the Virgin's cheek must allude also to the iconographic tradition of the Deposition. The composition evidently postdates that of the Virgin with the porridge spoon (Friedländer, pl. 208), and it is surely significant that the mullioned window appears in a similar position in this: in one version, in the Musées de la Ville, Strasbourg (Friedländer, pl. 212) the same building appears as in the present design, in which the porridge bowl is shown with its cover carefully displaced to reveal its contents, upon which in turn the rotting apples rest. So poignant and poetic an image is understandable in the work of the elderly artist - for David was perhaps about 60 when it was painted, long past the average life span of his time.
David's skill in faithfully representing everyday objects such as tableware and food prefigures the worldly outlook of Pieter Aertsen and 17th-century still-life painting, and is beautifully displayed in the fruit and bowl that Saint Joseph holds in the present painting. Also notable here is the accurate and atmospheric rendering of the background landscape. In general, the importance that David accorded to landscapes within his compositions is fundamental for the later development of panoramic landscape painting as practiced by artists such as Joachim Patenir onwards. David makes the scene intimate and homelike. In Byzantine icons, images of the Virgin and Child pressed cheek-to-cheek are called Eleüsa, and this emphasis on tenderness is typical for late Paleologan Byzantine icons, which made their appearance in the 12th century. Perhaps also one of the principle sources of this motherly gesture may have been the Louvain tradition established by Dieric Bouts.