Sunday, March 19, 2023

Saint Joseph, Spouse As Mousetrap

Guido Reni, Saint Joseph with the Infant Jesus
Italian, 1620s
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

The image of Saint 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.

The Old Man

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, The Nativity
Italian, c. 1270
Paris, Musée du 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, The Nativity
Italian, c. 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, The Nativity
Netherlandish, 1420
Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts

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

Jacques Daret, The Adoration of the Magi
French, c. 1433-1435
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Jacques Daret, The Presentation of Jesus
French, 1433-1435
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.  According to the stories, Mary had many eligible suitors.  In order to ensure that the choice would fall to a truly good man, the Temple elders required all the suitors to bring a dry rod to the Temple.  The rods were placed on the altar overnight.  In the morning, only one had blossomed, the rod belonging to Joseph.

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

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

Giotto, The Marriage of Mary and Joseph
Italian, c. 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, The Marriage of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1431-1432
Florence, Museo di San Marco

The Mousetrap

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

Workshop of Robert Campin (Master of Flemalle), Merode Altarpiece
Netherlandish, c. 1427-1432
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection

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. 

Robert Campin and Workshop, Saint Joseph, the Mousetrap
Detail of the Merode Altarpiece,  Right Wing

Some completed projects appear on his workbench and on display in the window of the shop.  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

Robert Campin and Workshop, Saint Joseph at his bench with completed mousetrap surrounded by tools and wood shavings
Detail of the Merode Altarpiece,  Right Wing

Robert Campin and Workshop, Saint Joseph with completed mousetrap on display
Detail of the Merode Altarpiece,  Right Wing

The idea of the mousetrap as a symbol for the Redemption is drawn from sermons of Saint 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, Saint 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 Saint 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 Saint Joseph began to develop. It was in 1479 that the feast of Saint Joseph, celebrated on March 19, was added to the Roman calendar of commemorations.

Renaissance Developments

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, c. 1506
Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi

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

Philippe de Champaigne, The Presentation of Jesus
Flemish, 1648
Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts
Here a darkly-bearded Joseph stands next to Mary holding a basket with their offering of two doves.

Caesar van Everdingen, Holy Family
Dutch, c. 1650
Utrecht, Museum Catherijneconvent

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Holy Family with a Little Bird
Spanish, c. 1650
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Francesco Mancini, Holy Family
Italian, c. 1730
Vatican City, Vatican Museums, Pinacoteca

The Foster Father

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 participates in family life.  He carries and cares for the infant Jesus and teaches the boy Jesus.  This theme seems to have been particularly attractive to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century artists.

Saint Joseph with the Christ Child
Dutch, 17th Century
Maastricht, Bonnefanten Museum

Lucio Massari, La Madonna del Bucato
Italian, c. 1620
Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi

Jose de Ribera, Saint Joseph and the Boy Jesus
Spanish, c. 1630=1635
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

George de la Tour, The Boy Jesus and Saint Joseph  in the Carpenter's Shop
French, 1642
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Sebastian Martinez, St. Joseph with the Christ Child
Spanish, c. 1650
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Juan Antonio Frias y Escalante, Saint Joseph and the Infant Christ
Spanish, c. 1660-1665
Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

Saint Joseph with the Infant Christ
Latin American, 18th Century
Auch, Musée des Ameriques

Saint Joseph with the Boy Jesus
Flemish, 18th Century
Paris, Musee du Louvre, Département des Objets d'art du Moyen Age, de la Renaissance et des temps modernes

Saint Joseph with the Infant Jesus
Dutch, 18th Century
Maastricht, Bonnefantenmuseum

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, Saint Joseph with the Christ Child
Italian, c. 1740
Private Collection

Nöel Hallé, Holy Family
French, 1753
Hartford, Wadsworth Atheneum

The Two Trinities

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

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, The Two Trinities
Spanish, c. 1675-1682
London, National Gallery of Art

Jacob de Wit, Holy Family and the Holy Trinity
Dutch, 1726
Amsterdam, Amstelkring ("Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder" or "Our Dear Lord in the Attic)" Museum+

Saint Joseph and Recent Popes

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. *

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 Saint 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 Saint Joseph in the Motu Proprio, Bonum Sane (It was a good thing), of July 25, 1920. *

In 1955 Pope Pius XII instituted an additional feast day for Saint Joseph, under the title of St. Joseph the Worker. It is celebrated on May 1, although it is frequently displaced by the Easter weekday.

In 2012 Pope Benedict XVI, whose baptismal name is Joseph, proclaimed Joseph as patron of the New Evangelization during the special Year of Faith celebrated that year.*

Similarly, Pope Francis, in an Apostolic Letter, Patris Corde ("With the Heart of a Father"), dated December 8, 2020,  proclaimed the liturgical year 2021 to be a special year devoted to Saint Joseph during which Catholics will reflect on Joseph's life and qualities.  The Pope noted that it has been 150 years since Pius IX proclaimed Saint Joseph as patron of the universal Church. He added that 2020, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, reminded us of the importance of those seemingly hidden lives that keep the world going.  As he said "Each of us can discover in Joseph – the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence – an intercessor, a support and a guide in times of trouble. Saint Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation. "*

© M. Duffy, 2012, updated 2021, 2022 and 2023.
1. A good summary of the history of images of St. Joseph is found at

2. Meyer Schapiro, "Muscipula Diaboli," The Symbolism of the Mérode Altarpiece, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Sep., 1945), pp. 182-187.

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.

*  The Papal documents referred to are available at the website of the Holy See (  The landing page is in Italian, but one can choose another language in the box at the upper right corner (for the entire site) and each document has translations available in multiple languages.  Scroll down on the landing page to the small portraits of the Popes and click on the Pope whose writings you are interested in.  That will lead you to the website devoted to the works of each Pope from Benedict XIV (1740-1758) to Francis.

This museum is quite unique.  It is a clandestine Catholic church tucked into the attic of a typical 17th-century middle class merchant's house in Amsterdam.  This dates from the period in which Catholic worship was banned in some provinces of the Netherlands, where a Calvinist government was in power.