Guido Reni, St. Joseph with the Infant Jesus
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
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.
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|
Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts
|Fra Filippo Lippi, Adoration of the Shepherds|
Italian, c. 1455
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi
|Jacques Daret, Adoration of the Magi|
Berlin, Staatliche Museen
|Jacques Daret, Presentation of Jesus|
Paris, Musée 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, The Suitors Praying Over Their Rods|
Padua, Arena/Scrovegni Chapel
|Giotto, The Marriage of Mary and Joseph|
Padua, Arena/Scrovegni Chapel
|Fra Angelico, Marriage of the Virgin|
Florence, Museo di San Marco
Raphael, Marriage of Virgin
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera
|Rosso, Marriage of Virgin|
Florence, San Lorenzo
Alonso Cano, Marriage of the Virgin
Castres, Musée 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|
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Division
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.
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.
|Robert Campin, St. Joseph, the Mousetrap|
Detail of the Merode Altarpiece, Right Wing
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|
Rome, Galleria Doria-Pamphilji
|Noel Halle, Holy Family|
Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum
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
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.