Saint Joseph: The Iconography

In Judea, the natal day Not the birthday but the day he died and was "born again" in Heaven of St. Joseph, confessor, the most blessed spouse of the Virgin Mary. Pope Pius IX, moved by the vows and requests from all over the Catholic world, declared him the patron of the universal Church.

St. Joseph, the father of Jesus, is not mentioned in the gospels of John and Mark. Luke mentions him by name only in the genealogy of Jesus and once in the narrative of Jesus' birth. Most of the material used in the images is from the Gospel of Matthew and the 2nd-century Protevangelium of James.

One passage in the latter explains how Joseph and Mary came to be betrothed. Briefly, an angel tells the priests to call all the widowers to come to the Temple with their rods; there will then be a sign to show which of the widowers should be betrothed to Mary. St. Joseph is chosen when a dove flies out of his rod. In the Golden Legend, a flower grows out of the rod before the dove alights upon it. The episode of the rods is sometimes seen in groups of images devoted to the Nativity, for example in a panel in Giotto's Arena Chapel frescoes. Pictures of the actual betrothal will show Joseph with the rod, either topped with flowers as in the Golden Legend (example) or with a dove as in the earlier version (example)

In later images the rod develops into a lily stalk used as the saint's attribute, as in the first image at right. In one image Joseph is even shown giving the lily stalk to Anthony of Padua as a sign of virginity.

Another passage in the Protevangelium provides a detailed account of what is sometimes called "St. Joseph's Trouble" – the dilemma he faces when he finds that Mary is with child. The dilemma is compounded when the High Priest, seeing Mary pregnant, accuses the two of them. Upon their protestations, he tests them by making them drink "the water of the ordeal of the Lord," which should make them ill. When it fails to do so, he dismisses them. This "water test" is the subject of numerous images in early and medieval Christian art (example).

The saint is also pictured in the many images related to the birth of Jesus. (See list at right.) In all these image types, he appears because he is in the story, but it was rare for medieval art to portray him separately or among other saints. The attitude starts to change in the 15th century, when we see him sitting by a fire in one Annunciation and working at his craft in another.

Then early in the 16th Holy Family images come into favor, featuring St. Joseph with the Virgin and the child Jesus. In the same century St. Teresa of Ávila began to promote devotion to St. Joseph, whom she made the patron of her reformed Carmelite convent. Henceforth we see him in pictures with Teresa (example) or other saints (example), or the boy Jesus (example). In modern times a favored subject is his teaching Jesus carpentry (example).

The 16th century also saw a change in the portraiture. The most common approach previously had been to follow the Protevangelium in making him an old man balding, graying, often leaning on a cane. This kind of portrayal started to change at the turn of the 16th century, as Joseph becomes more youthful (example). The change was encouraged by Molanus's spirited insistence that St. Joseph should be portrayed as a young man (De Historia SS. Imaginum, 269-73). Earlier writers had thought the traditional imagery necessary to maintain belief in Mary's perpetual virginity, but Molanus argued that it was far more appropriate to show a young man capable of restraining his carnal urges, like his namesake Joseph when tempted by Potiphar's wife (Genesis 39:1-20), someone virile enough to take his wife and child on the difficult journey to Egypt, support them there with his labor, and then return them to Israel (Matthew 2:13-23).

After Molanus many images abandoned the traditional portrayal and give the saint, for example, a full head of dark hair (as in the Antonio David painting at right). This is by no means a consistent pattern in any period, however. Indeed, in 1895 the same studio in Germany produced for a church in Glottertal a Marriage of the Virgin with a quite young Joseph with all his hair and a Holy Family with a year-old Jesus and a Joseph seriously balding and carrying a cane.

Joseph's death is not mentioned in scripture, but because of the traditional belief about his age it was assumed that he died before Jesus began his ministry. His death has been pictured frequently in an image type in which Jesus and Mary lovingly attend him in his last hour (example). Indeed, at last count (2014) the Wikimedia Commons category for "Death of St. Joseph on stained glass windows" had 60 images. The subject goes back at least to the Baroque era (example) but is especially favored in American Catholic churches from the 19th and early 20th centuries, which frequently have side altars dedicated to St. Joseph.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University

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Mexican santo of St. Joseph (See the description page)

The St. Joseph Portal, Sagrada Familia, Barcelona (See the description page)

The Annunciation to Joseph, 5th century (See the description page)

Antonio David, The Betrothal of St. Joseph (See the description page)

MORE IMAGES

  • 19th century: Statue at Mission San Juan Capistrano, California.

DATES

  • The March 19 feast day was not established until 1870.
  • May 1 is also celebrated as the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker.

HAGIOGRAPHY

ALSO SEE