A Model Father: Saint Joseph in Art

by Elizabeth Lev, appearing in Volume 39

Saint Joseph’s rise to recognition in art took a long time, suited to the patron saint of hard work. Conspicuously absent in paleo-Christian art—he is never featured in early Nativity or Magi scenes—he made his first appearance in the history of art in the fifth century, in the apse of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

Detail of the fifth-century Annunciation mosaic scene at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, the first known depiction of Saint Joseph in art. Photo: wikimedia.org/Public Domain

He balances the mosaic scene of the Annunciation with his own angelic encounter. Sporting a short tunic and a bright orange mantle, he stands discreetly to the side, his placement like that of a courtier.

Early Christian art relegated Joseph to the sidelines in order to impress upon its pagan converts both the Virgin birth and Christ’s divinity.

With only fifteen lines dedicated to him in the Gospels, the silent, unassuming Saint Joseph was overshadowed by his more celebrated spouse and son.

The widely disseminated apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew cast the hard-working carpenter even further into the periphery by portraying him as an old man perpetually one step behind his son in caring for the family.

It was, however, this vision of Joseph—looking for midwives, or searching for food and shelter—that would later inspire many charming images of Joseph at work, particularly in Northern art, where he might be seen getting water, stoking a fire, or fussing with his tools.

It took a millennium for Christian art to expand Josephine iconography. A relic had turned up at last—his old trousers or “hosen” repurposed as Jesus’ swaddling—and as of the thirteenth century they became a draw for pilgrims to the cathedral of Aachen. For their part, the Franciscans, devoted to Jesus’ human experience, picked up the baton by placing him more consistently in infancy scenes.

Depicted as the sleeping figure of the Nativity, Joseph was highlighted for the singular divine communication he received over four dreams.

Nevertheless, he remained a secondary character, an extra in narrative frescoes or altarpieces: as yet he had no feast day, therefore no altarpiece.

Model Father and Husband

Joseph’s hour arrived during one of the papacy’s greatest crises. The Western Schism (1378-1417) had spawned three papal claimants, leaving the Church rudderless and divided, and a neglected flock. The Church cried out for a holy “father” (the etymological origin of the word “pope”) and looked to Joseph as a model of the Pope’s relationship to the Church.

Medieval theologian Jean Gerson composed an extraordinary epic poem, the Josephina, to exalt the heroic virtues of the saint. During the Council of Constance (1414-1418), when the Church sought to unify under a single pontiff, Gerson proposed that the pope, like Joseph, “be made the betrothed and shepherd to the Church.”

Artists responded by painting Joseph wearing yellow and blue robes, and sporting short white hair and a beard, similar to dipictions of Saint Peter. One famous pairing is Pietro Perugino’s Joseph in the Marriage of the Virgin and his Peter in the Delivery of the Keys, the latter painted in the Sistine chapel for Sixtus IV, who fixed the feast of Saint Joseph on March 19.

The Council of Trent catapulted Joseph to the Empyrion of sacred imagery. The sacrament of marriage had been degraded by Henry VIII’s divorce wars, bigamy due to private marriage contracts among nobles, debates over whether consent or consummation constituted marriage, and the lax sexual mores of the age, all of which led to an increase in prostitution and concubinage. The Church needed to bolster the importance of the sacrament among the faithful.

Saint Joseph shone forth as the much-needed model of married life. Kings emulated him and saints venerated him. Saint Teresa of Ávila, who attributed her cure from paralysis to him, dedicated twelve of her seventeen reformed monasteries to him, who, like her, experienced visions of angels. Under her impetus, statues of Joseph proliferated in chapels and churches.

Go to Joseph

Saint Francis de Sales then transmitted the devotion over the Pyrenees and hispanic missionaries exported it to the New World. Their campaign would see Saint Joseph declared the patron of Mexico in 1555. The century closed with Jeronimo Gracian writing a new Josephina, evoking the line from Genesis, “Go to Joseph,” which, to this day, is inscribed on his statues.

A new image of Joseph emerged: younger and stronger, capable of caring for and protecting his family. Artists reveled in this iconographical challenge and suddenly Joseph not only became a solo star of altarpieces, but a coveted subject for domestic art.

El Greco led the charge in the cathedral of Toledo with his altarpiece of a tall, charismatic father protectively embracing his son. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s images of Saint Joseph rival in number his Immaculate Conceptions, including the charming images of Joseph in his workshop, taking a break from his labors to play with Jesus as the Virgin looks on. In Italy, nobles clamored for Guido Reni’s intimate images of Joseph tenderly cradling the Christ Child in his arms, lost in adoring affection. These works, destined for homes, were meant to showcase the virtues of family life, especially fatherhood.

The mounting interest in Joseph led to a desire for more details about his life. A fifth-century apocryphal book, The History of Joseph the Carpenter, was mined for imagery, hymns, and stories. In the book, Jesus himself narrates the life of Joseph, revealing the elderly carpenter’s fear of death, and personally assures him that he will be received in heaven. (At this time, some theologians were floating the proposal that Joseph had also been bodily assumed.)

The Art of Dying Well

Thus, Joseph became the poster child for the most pressing issue of the Baroque age, the art of dying well. Churches were brimming with memento mori: flying skeletons and winged clocks jolted the faithful into awareness of their mortality, but Joseph offered another, gentler, lesson.

Dozens of images showing the death of Saint Joseph graced altars in Rome and beyond, from Francesco Trevisani’s flamboyant version in Sant’ Ignazio, where the heavens open and God the Father appears to take custody of the custodian of the Savior, to the more intimate versions like those of Gioacchino Assereto where wife and son gather closely around the moribund Joseph. Through these works, the Church proclaimed the need for repentance, the importance of the viaticum, and the promise of eternal life even for the humblest and most inconspicuous.

The Death of Saint Joseph by Francesco Trevisani in Sant'Ignazio, Rome Photo: wikimedia.org/Sailko

Joseph’s momentum was such that by 1870, when the Papal States fell to the newly formed kingdom of Italy, Blessed Pius IX chose him as patron of the Universal Church. Leo XIII invoked him as the bulwark against the rising tide of socialism, to combat social injustices and labor inequalities.

Saint John XXIII added him to the Roman canon in 1962 while Saint John Paul II reflected on Joseph’s “self-giving love” in his 1989 Apostolic exhortation, Redemptoris Custos, to express his growing concern of the dissolution of the family in the modern age. Pope Francis in 2013 added Saint Joseph to all the other Eucharistic prayers, so he is invoked at every Mass everywhere in the world.

A Place of Honor

Joseph’s statue assumed a place of honor in churches, on the right (epistle) side of the altar paired with Mary on the left. Sicilians imported the Joseph altar (laden with food offerings for the poor) to the United States. But as his images proliferated, they also grew trite and saccharine, like figurines on a wedding cake (or the statuettes buried upside down in the propitiatory real-estate rite).

This year, Pope Francis has given us an amazing opportunity to rediscover Joseph in art and in liturgical space. In our era of fear of sickness and death, loss of fatherhood, and disparaging of masculinity, the possibilities for artists are endless!

Some, like Dony Mac Manus, might present a virile yet tender Joseph, a reflection on John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Perhaps Joseph might return to altars challenging men to bear the burdens and responsibilities of fatherhood. Or maybe he will be a reminder that in Christ, we are never forgotten, serving as a beacon to the families of all those who died alone and without sacraments this year due to Coronavirus restrictions.