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. – Roman Martyrology for March 19

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. The lily, a symbol of chastity, references the Catholic belief that Mary was a virgin throughout her earthly life.1 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 mid-15th century, when we see him sitting by a fire in one Annunciation and working at his craft in another. Later in the century, Pope Sixtus IV established March 19 as his feast day.2

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). This same era saw a marked increase in the number of images featuring Joseph and in the number of churches and chapels dedicated to him.3

ST. JOSEPH THE WORKER

In his study of Philippine ivories (37, 84) Trota José identifies a santo type known as San José Labrador, "St. Joseph the Worker." In it the Christ Child stands with a pail of tools and holds Joseph's hand. Trota José's examples are from the 18th and 19th centuries, but this emphasis on Joseph as a workman has increased in modern times. In 1955 Pius XII set May 1 as the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, and images have developed of his teaching Jesus carpentry (example).

EVOCATIONS OF JOSEPH'S AGE

The 16th century also saw a change in the portraiture. A 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 became more youthful, as in (this example) from the 18th. 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 abandon the traditional portrayal and give the saint, for example, a full head of dark hair (as in the second picture 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.

IMAGES OF THE DEATH OF ST. JOSEPH

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. This image type developed in the Baroque era (example) and has changed little since then. In the 19th through the mid-20th centuries it became very common in Catholic churches, particularly in the United States and Canada, where an altar dedicated to the saint was often placed in a bay to the right of the main altar.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-12-06, 2018-09-15, 2021-06-21.

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Mexican santo of St. Joseph from the 17th or 18th century. (See the description page.)

Late 17th/Early 18th century: Antonio David, The Betrothal of St. Joseph (See the description page)

ATTRIBUTES

  • A staff with flowers and/or a dove at its top
  • Alternatively, a lily stalk

MORE IMAGES

DATES

  • March 19: The Feast of St. Joseph, established in 1870.
  • May 1: the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, established in 1955.

BIOGRAPHY

ALSO SEE

NOTES

1 For the perpetual virginity of Mary, see Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶¶ 499-500. In the "Divine Praises" recited after Benediction, In the western churches, "Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament" is a rite in which the congregation prays before the eucharistic host. Joseph is Mary's "most chaste spouse." See Lane, 76 for a discussion of this prayer and the Divine Praises website for the text.

2 Wilson, "Further Evidence," 903.

3 Wilson, "Further Evidence," 903-33.

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