Tuesday, May 1, 2012

St. Joseph, Spouse As Mousetrap

Guido Reni, St. Joseph with the Infant Jesus
Italian, 1620s
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
The image of St. Joseph has had a curious history, reflecting the attitude to Joseph as it has developed through time. Today we tend to think of him as the supportive companion of the Virgin Mary or as the strong, silent protector of the Infant Jesus or as the craftsman going quietly about his work. But all of these images are only a few centuries old, if that.

For most of the history of Christian art St. Joseph was either ignored or treated as a very minor background figure. Early depictions of the birth of Jesus don’t include him at all! And, since his appearances in the New Testament end with the episode of the Finding of Jesus in the Temple at the age of twelve, that (as a background figure at the Nativity) was pretty much the limit of inclusion for Joseph.

In early medieval images in both the East and the West Joseph, when he appears at all, is segregated from Mary and the Christ Child, even in Nativity images. Further, he is invariably shown not as a sturdy man in his prime, but as an old, indeed sometimes a very old. man.
Guido da Siena, Nativity
Italian, ca. 1270
Paris, Louvre

In this thirteenth-century Italian Nativity scene, Joseph (shown seating at the extreme left at the bottom) has about the same level of importance as the midwives who bathe the Baby Jesus or the kneeling shepherd and his dog.



Duccio, Nativity
Italian, 1308-1311
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art
In this picture, by Duccio, Joseph has increased in size, a sure indicator that he is becoming a more important figure.  So, he is now marginally more important than the midwives and the shepherds with their sheep and dog because he is bigger in size.

Both of these aspects of Joseph’s iconography, his advanced age and his detachment, spring from the concern to protect both the divinity of Christ and the perpetual virginity of Mary. It was thought that a younger, more involved figure might raise questions about his role.1

By the later middle ages this was beginning to change. While still shown as an old man, Joseph began to take a more active role in the scenes of Jesus’ life. He is brought into the same space as Mary and Jesus.  He begins to help at the birth, join Mary in adoration of the Child, welcome the Magi, take part in the Presentation in the Temple and to work.


Master of Flemalle, Nativity
Netherlandish, 1420
Dijon, Musee des Beaux-Arts

Fra Filippo Lippi, Adoration of the Shepherds
Italian, c. 1455
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi


Jacques Daret, Adoration of the Magi
French, 1433-1435
Berlin, Staatliche Museen 
Jacques Daret, Presentation of Jesus
French, 1433-1435
Paris, Musee du Petit Palais

Other scenes, taken from apocryphal stories of the life of Mary, began to appear, among them the story of his choice as Mary’s husband and the marriage ceremony itself.

Giotto, Mary's Suitors Bring Their Rods to the Temple
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Arena/Scrovegni Chapel


For, example Giotto's frescoes from the Life of the Virgin cycle in the Arena (or Scrovegni) Chapel in Padua, include the apocryphal story of the manner in which Joseph was chosen as Mary's husband.

Mary's many suitors were asked to each bring a wooden rod to the Temple, where they were given to the High Priest.  The rods were left on the altar overnight, while the men prayed over them.  In the morning one of the rods had bloomed with lilies.  It was Joseph's rod.

Giotto shows Joseph as one of the crowd of suitors, but not prominent.  He is an older man than the others and shown as standing and kneeling toward the back of the group.


Giotto, The Suitors Praying Over Their Rods
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Arena/Scrovegni Chapel



Giotto, The Marriage of Mary and Joseph
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Arena/Scrovegni Chapel
In the scene of the wedding of Mary and Joseph he carries his lily topped rod as a symbol of his own purity and as the sign of divine appointment as foster father for Jesus.

Fra Angelico, Marriage of the Virgin
Italian, 1431-1432
Florence, Museo di San Marco
Raphael, Marriage of Virgin
Italian, 1504
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera


Rosso, Marriage of Virgin
Italian, 1523
Florence, S. Lorenzo
Alonso Cano, Marriage of the Virgin
Spanish, 1655-1657
Castres, Musee Goya
























One of the most interesting images of Saint Joseph from the later middle ages/early Renaissance period appears on the right wing of the Merode Altarpiece.

Workshop of Robert Campin (Master of Flemalle), Merode Altarpiece
Netherlandish, 1427-1432
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Division
Robert Campin, St. Joseph, the Mousetrap
Detail of the Merode Altarpiece,  Right Wing
This triptych, now in the Cloisters branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was painted by the Flemish artist Robert Campin and his workshop during the second quarter of the fifteenth century. The central panel shows the Annunciation taking place in a typical 15th-century town parlor. The right wing shows Joseph in his workshop.  He is seated at a bench and table by the open window of his shop, surrounded by the implements of his trade. Some completed projects appear, most conspicuous among them are two mousetraps (one is on the table, the other on display in the open window). Scholars have identified the symbolic meaning of these mousetraps. They are “the devil’s mousetrap".2

The idea of the mousetrap as a symbol for the Redemption is drawn from sermons of St. Augustine – the Incarnation is God’s mousetrap to catch the devil. The devil wasn’t expecting the Messiah to come in the form of a human baby, especially one born into such humble surroundings.  Further, St. Joseph himself is a third mousetrap. His presence as the apparent father of Jesus confused the devil further. The devil anticipated contending with a different kind of Messiah, not the child of a humble carpenter.  So, by inspiring the human death of Jesus the devil was himself destroyed.

This image, equating St. Joseph with the mousetrap, stands at a seminal point for the Josephite iconography. It is probably not a coincidence that this image appeared during the period in which devotion to St. Joseph began to develop. It was in 1479 that the feast of St. Joseph, celebrated on March 19, was added to the Roman calendar of commemorations.

During the later Renaissance and into the Baroque period Joseph became more and more evident and involved. His age began to change as well. Although some artists continued to depict him as an older man many began to depict him as young and vigorous. Even those who chose to make him older never again made him as old as did the earlier images.
Michelangelo, Holy Family (Doni Tondo)
Italian, ca. 1506
Florence, Uffizi Galllery

Caravaggio, Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Italian, 1596-1597
Rome, Galleria Doria-Pamphilji

Philippe de Champaigne, Presentation of Jesus
French, 1648
Brussels, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts

Caesar van Everdingen, Holy Family
Dutch, c. 1660
Utrecht, Museum Catherijneconvent























Francesco Mancini, Holy Family
Italian, c.1730
Vatican City, Pinacoteca
Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, St. Joseph with the Christ Child
Italian, c. 1740
Private Collection


























Artists also began to depict a closer relationship between Jesus and his foster father. They were more frequently seen in close connection to each other. Joseph now carries and cares for the infant Jesus and teaches the boy Jesus.

Noel Halle, Holy Family
French, 1753
Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum
George de la Tour, The Boy Jesus and St. Joseph
 in the Carpenter's Shop
French, 1645
Paris, Musee du Louvre


























Finally, with Mary and Jesus, he forms a sort of terrestrial trinity represented by the familiar formula: Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Bartolome Murillo, The Two Trinities
Spanish, 1675-1682
London, National Gallery of Art
In more recent times Joseph has begun to stand on his own, as a saint in his own right. On December 8, 1870 Pope Pius IX, in the decree Quaemadmodem Deus (“As Almighty God”) declared him the patron of the universal Church and in 1899, in the encyclical Quamquam pluries (“Although many times”) Pope Leo XIII urged all Catholics to give Joseph special honor during the month of March and especially on the 19th of March, his feast day. Further the phrase “Blessed be St. Joseph, her most chaste spouse" was added to the Divine Praises by Pope Benedict XV on February 23, 1921. Benedict XV also encouraged devotion to St. Joseph in the Motu Proprio, Bonum Sane (It was a good thing), of July 25, 1920. And finally, in 1955 Pope Pius XII instituted an additional feast day for St. Joseph, under the title of St. Joseph the Worker. It is celebrated on May 1, although it is frequently displaced by the Easter weekday.

Currently, it is expected that Pope Benedict XVI, whose baptismal name is Joseph, will proclaim Joseph as patron of the New Evangelization during the upcoming Year of Faith.


© M. Duffy, 2012
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1. A good summary of the history of images of St. Joseph is found at http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=4464&CFID=126000758&CFTOKEN=56733566

2. Meyer Schapiro, "Muscipula Diaboli," The Symbolism of the Mérode Altarpiece, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Sep., 1945), pp. 182-187. http://reserves.fcla.edu/rsv/NC/010014478-1.pdf

Also see: Margaret B. Freeman, “The Iconography of the Merode Altarpiece”, Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 16, no. 4, December 1957, pp. 130-139.

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