Sacred Artwork

St. Joseph in Art History

Throughout the Year of St. Joseph, we’ll be exploring the various ways St. Joseph has been depicted in Christian art and iconography.

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Mosaic Decoration in the Basilica of St. Mary Major, Rome

The decoration of the Early Christian churches, and particularly of the basilicas, was mostly with mosaics. The largest series of early Christian mosaics in Rome are the panels on the triumphal arch and the nave walls of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. These extensive mosaics were completed between 432-40 AD. The arch is decorated with continuous New Testament scenes relating to the early life of Jesus. Mary, the Mother of God, is shown as queen of Heaven, enthroned and dressed regally. Jesus is portrayed as a youth or young adult, not as an infant or child. On the top register, Saint Joseph can be seen to the right. Joseph is young, bearded and garbed as a Roman of status befitting the consort of a queen. Here he is conversing with the angels announcing Jesus birth and holding not a shepherds staff, but in his left hand a rod symbolizing the authority and responsibility, he has just been given. In the bottom register, Joseph stands on the left side, in Bethlehem, the city of David, the king from whose descendants, traced to Joseph, Jesus was born. On the right is seen Jerusalem, the place of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Nativity – The Sinai Icon Collection

In the Early centuries of Christianity, Saint Joseph appeared only in images of the Nativity, likely because that is where he is found in Scripture. Most of the narrative surrounding Joseph comes from the Gospel of Matthew and the traditional accounts documented in the Protoevangelium of James. Some of the oldest extent images of Joseph can be seen among the icons of Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s Sinai. In these images, dating from perhaps as early as the 7th century, Mary is central to the scene, the animals adore the infant Christ, as angels, magi, shepherds, and maids attend our Lord, and musicians play.  Saint Joseph is shown in what for centuries became his characteristic pose. He sits in the corner of the cave, chin in hand, pondering what James calls “Joseph’s Troubles”  – the awesome and terrible responsibility of the care and protection of God incarnate as a human child.

Marriage of the Virgin – Giotto di Bondone (1305)

The earliest record of a formal devotional for Saint Joseph in Church comes from France in the year 800. As devotion to Joseph increased, the faithful sought details of his life beyond the sparse account found in Holy Scripture.  In the 13th century, various written and oral apocryphal sources that comprised Church tradition were compiled by Jacobus de Varagine into a widely read work entitled Legenda Aurea or Legenda Santorum  (in English, the Golden Legend).  At the height of the popularity of the Golden Legend, the great Porto-Renaissance artist, Giotto completed a monumental cycle of frescoes on the Life of the Virgin For the Cappella Scrovegni in Padua. In a new vivid realism, Giotto shows us an older Saint Joseph, mature enough to be guardian and protector for the Virgin and her divine Son. As he presents himself for marriage, Joseph is depicted once again holding the rod; this time it is not a symbol of authority, but a testimony to events depicted in the Legend account. Mary came of age to be betrothed and an angel told the priest to summon marriageable men to the Temple with their rods where a sign would be given as to which is worthy to be betrothed to Mary. St. Joseph was chosen when a dove descended on his rod just as a flower sprouted forth from it.  From this point forward, the flower, most often a lily, became a standard symbol of Saint Joseph in Church art.