The Holy Family: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
The Iconography
This traditional subject of Renaissance and later art often uses Jesus and his parents to comment on human family. One important change over the years was in the portrayal of St. Joseph. Before the 16th century images of the Holy Family as such were quite rare, marriage itself being under something of a shadow. As the first two pictures on the right make clear, the 16th century was open to portraying Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as a family, but the man of the house was cast in shadows in de Sarto's painting and in very deep shadows in Sebastiano's. But at the end of that century Molanus (269-73) defended Joseph's youth and vitality and derided the notion that only senescence would explain his keeping his hands off the Virgin. Thus by the 19th century Joseph can be pictured as a vigorous young man who nevertheless bears as his attribute the lily of chastity.

Often the image will also include a young John the Baptist, as in the second picture at right and this example, which also adds John's mother Elizabeth.

Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-10-31.


In Sebastiano del Piombo's Holy Family, 1526, Mary is the most pro­mi­nent fig­ure. The angels are about to crown her, and St. Jo­seph is in the deep sha­dows be­hind the Child. (See the de­scrip­tion page.)

Andrea del Sarto's Holy Family with John the Bap­tist, from the same pe­ri­od as Se­bas­ti­ano's paint­ing, makes Jo­seph more pro­mi­nent but still sha­dowed. (See the de­scrip­tion page)

By the 19th century Joseph is well out of the shadows. (See the de­scrip­tion page)



  • Since 1969 the Catholic Church has celebrated a Feast of the Holy Family on the Sunday between Christmas Day and New Year's Day.