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does peruzzi’s st. joseph have a sixth toe?

Close up of St.Joseph painting
There is debate about the way Peruzzi has painted St Joseph’s foot. Senior Curator of Art, Anne Stewart, explains all.

High Renaissance artists

What seems to be a sixth toe, appears in the work of a number of High Renaissance artists. It is usually associated with St. Joseph but also appears in figures of the Virgin and St. John the Baptist. Artists during the High Renaissance, and Raphael in particular, would not have made such an obvious mistake. 

Baldassare Peruzzi 'The Nativity' c.1515
'The Nativity', Baldassare Peruzzi c.1515

It has been suggested that that the reason for depicting the foot in this way is to illustrate a psychological realisation of heavy, even unnatural responsibility.1

Close up of a painting depicting St Joseph's feet
Close up of St.Joseph's foot, Baldassare Peruzzi, 'The Nativity' c.1515

The representation of what appears to be a sixth toe, is particularly associated with depictions of St Joseph, and seems to represent the heavy burden of responsibility that St Joseph assumed in protecting and guarding the infant Christ Child, becoming his earthly father in a sense.

Representation of responsibility

A drawing by Peruzzi in the Met Museum New York of A Crouching Figure of Atlas shows a similar foot. In classical mythology, Atlas bore the weight of the entire world on his shoulders. 

Crouching Figure of Atlas
Baldassare Peruzzi (1481-1536), A Crouching Figure of Atlas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harry G. Sperling Fund, 1992,

As depictions of this foot are not confined to religious subjects it seems more likely that they represent a compressing or altering of the human form to illustrate supreme, even unimaginable, weight and responsibility.

A Crouching Figure of Atlas, close up drawing of bare foot

This debate will continue. It is particularly interesting for Peruzzi studies as the other artists associated with this depiction include Francesco di Giorgio Martini, who was Peruzzi’s teacher, and Perugino, who was Raphael’s teacher. 


Senior Curator of Art, Anne Stewart, believes that given the similar depiction in Peruzzi’s drawing of Atlas, this detail should be read as representing the heavy responsibility of caring for and protecting the Virgin and the Christ Child which St. Joseph assumed at the Nativity. This would also explain St. Joseph’s pose, leaning heavily on his staff for support, and his dramatically furrowed brow and serious expression.