St. Joseph in Art: The Ultimate Multi-Tasker

Fleur Dorrell takes a look at some of the less well-known texts and images that have influenced how St Joseph has been portrayed in art. For a man of biblical times, he is refreshingly modern.

Prayer to St Joseph by Pope Francis in this special year of St Joseph.

Hail, Guardian of the Redeemer,
Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
To you God entrusted his only Son;
in you Mary placed her trust;
with you Christ became man.
Blessed Joseph, to us too,
show yourself a father
and guide us in the path of life.
Obtain for us grace, mercy, and courage,
and defend us from every evil. 

​Today, St Joseph is venerated as the patron saint of workers, pilgrims, fathers, and carpenters. Yet we know very little about him since the Bible has so few references to his character and life. This seems remarkable given his role in Jesus’ birth and early years. If Joseph is Jesus’ human father, why is he not mentioned in the gospels of Mark and John? Luke mentions him by name only in the genealogy of Jesus and once in the narrative of Jesus’ birth. Therefore, most of our ideas about Joseph come from Matthew’s Gospel, the 2nd-century Protoevangelium of James and the Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine.

How Joseph and Mary came to be betrothed in the first place is described in the Proto-evangelium. An angel tells the priests to call all the widowers to come to the Temple with their rods; God will provide a sign to show which widower should be betrothed to Mary. Joseph is chosen because a dove flies out of his rod. In the Golden Legend, a flower grows out of the rod before the dove alights upon it. This symbol recalls the imagery of the flowering staff of Aaron showing he had been chosen by God in Numbers 17:23, and the Jesse rod in Isaiah 11:1-2. The episode of the rods and the marriage are painted by Giotto in his Scrovegni Chapel frescoes below.

Since the 17th century, the most enduring image of St Joseph has been as a carpenter, perhaps in some ways, influenced and associated with the rise of the Industrial Revolution and Catholic Social teaching documents on the dignity and rights of workers. So we now celebrate two feast days for Joseph:

19th March for Joseph the Husband of Mary.
1st May for Joseph the Worker.

19th March has been the most commonly celebrated feast day for St Joseph instituted by Pope Sixtus IV in 1479 but it wasn’t until 1955 that Pope Pius XII established the Feast of ‘St Joseph the Worker’ on 1st May. This is also May Day (International Workers’ Day) and believed to reflect Joseph’s status as the patron saint of workers.

What is interesting from the 17th century onwards, is that Joseph is no longer portrayed as an old man with a beard, asleep, dreaming or in the background only as guardian or protector, but is now painted as youthful, vigorous and very practical. Joseph is called a tekton in the gospels, which is usually translated from the Greek as carpenter but more likely was a general craftsman. What a wonderful father and multi-tasker.

Joseph is painted on his own, centre stage at last, combining humility and honour with highly skilled credentials that speak loudly to the modern age. Around him are a selection of tools and work in progress. Sometime the boy Jesus is with him, being shown the ropes; sometimes, Joseph is with fellow workers, but very often he is on his own, busy working in the service of God.

Here we see a series of wonderful linocuts illustrating this new interpretation of Joseph by Ade Bethune (1914 – 2002) who was an American Catholic liturgical artist. She was associated with the Catholic Worker Movement, and was a designer and iconographer.