Witness to the Incarnation

The Silent Knight: A History of Saint Joseph as Depicted in Art

by Elizabeth Lev
2021 Sophia Institute Press, 227 pages, $18.95
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Nativity by a fourteenth-century Flemish artist showing Saint Joseph removing his hosen to clothe the baby Jesus. Image: Public Domain

In her most recent book, Elizabeth Lev takes up the project of tracing the history of Saint Joseph in art. Lev, an art historian and a museum tour guide in Rome, excels at telling how the Catholic faith is embodied in art. In The Silent Knight, she has given the reader a singular and generous collection of artistic renderings of Saint Joseph, with sixty-three full-color plates of paintings, sculptures, mosaics, stained glass, fresco, altarpieces, and even carved ivory. Lev’s accompanying text explores the mystery of the “silent” Saint Joseph, the most prominent character whose words are never quoted in the Gospels, and provides order to the “visual jumble” of his prolific iconography. Her argument is that because he was silent and almost unknown, Joseph’s image was “malleable,” allowing a “progressively unfolding versatility” in his iconographic development, and so too a powerful answer to the troubles of the faithful.

As Lev explains in her opening words, Joseph is the “Silent Knight,” the ultimate “strong, silent type, a man of a few words.” Lev’s insights into this elusive saint are presented in fourteen chapters, each focused on a particular way in which Saint Joseph has been available, because of his very silence, to fill in where needed. The title, “Silent Knight,” is also a purposeful play on words referring to the Christmas song, “Silent Night,” thereby emphasizing the message, present throughout Lev’s book, that Joseph’s importance rests largely on the amazing fact that he was an ordinary human who was an active participant in the unfolding of the story of our redemption. We learn from Lev that the way Joseph is presented in art teaches us how to relate, in our ordinary human lives, to the mystery of God incarnate. Lev makes it beautifully clear that “people could see themselves in him and thus not only relate more closely to sacred mysteries but also find their place in the tremendous events of the age.” 

In her first chapter, Lev points out that images of Joseph are sparse in the early Church, an absence likely due to the desire among artists in the fledgling Church “to spotlight the divinity of Christ and the Virgin Birth in their proclamation to the Gentiles” rather than the human “father” of the Savior. 

Joseph’s debut in art can be found in Rome’s Basilica of Saint Mary Major, where he is portrayed a remarkable five times, something I would not have thought possible for such an early age. But this, of course, is the value of Lev’s book: each chapter presents “a new and unexpected turn” in Saint Joseph’s iconography, examining his portrayal as a model father, husband, provider, worker, contemplative, missionary, and model for the papacy, to name just a few of his roles. In each chapter Lev always provides the historical setting and then writes a careful and insightful portrayal of each piece of art depicting the saint.

Lev’s writing is refreshing. The opening of one chapter proclaims the “percolating awareness of the devotional possibilities of Joseph;” in another, a discussion of an issue “launching Joseph to stardom,” and even a time when Joseph “went ‘viral.’” The reader sees the Church unfold and develop, reflected in and aided by Joseph’s imagery in art. My favorite discovery is the fascinating discussion of Joseph’s hosen, or pants, used by Joseph, legend says, to clothe the newborn Savior. This first relic of Joseph soon made its appearance in Joseph’s iconography. 

Lev proclaims that “Saint Joseph’s devotional momentum was unstoppable” when, in 1621, Pope Gregory made Saint Joseph’s feast day a Holy Day of Obligation. But by the last chapter, titled “Go to Joseph!,” Lev worries that “Saint Joseph has become so visible as to have become invisible” again. She details the particular crises of today that beg to be addressed, wondering what new iconography of this Silent Knight will emerge. Joseph’s silence, Lev’s book tells us, is now, as it has always been, at the very core of his availability. She is particularly concerned that the laity take an active role in the renewal of devotion to Saint Joseph by way of commissions galvanizing artists. Certainly, Joseph will aid us, Lev’s book assures us, helping us to find our place in the tremendous upheavals of our own time.