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.

Many images will also add a young John the Baptist, as in the second picture at right, sometimes with further family members such as John's mother Elizabeth (example) or Mary's mother Anne (example). In Mexico several traditional iconographic types picture Los Cinco Señores: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Anne, and Joachim (example).

In late medieval and Renaissance images the conventions regarding the portrayal of the Christ Child follow the same pattern as in Madonna and Child paintings: In the 15th century he will be pictured naked (example). The 16th century gradually moves away from this practice, giving the child either a gauzy wisp of cloth, as in the first picture at right, or more modest cloth wrap as in the second.

Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University.


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.