An Introduction to the Other Person in the Picture: St. Joseph in Christian Art

This is a transcript of the first part of a six part lecture series of The Other Person in the Picture published from YouTube in 2015.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way: when his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But just as he resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.  And the angel said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.  For the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  And when Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.  Joseph took his wife, but knew her not until she had born a son, and Joseph named him Jesus.

The Gospel of Matthew 1:18-22

So writes Matthew, in the first chapter of his first century Gospel about Jesus of Nazareth, leaving no question Mary’s real earthly husband and Jesus his real earthly father.  Clear as it is in Matthew as well as the other early Christian Gospels of Luke and John that Joseph was the real earthly father of Jesus.  Not all comprehended the importance and significance of Joseph.  In fact, it is the case that in the history of Christianity, that Christians have perceived Joseph in very different ways.  Some Christians as we have seen in various images thus far, have recognized the significance of Joseph and seen him in a very positive light.  Relying upon the testimony of the earliest Christian Gospels, they emphasize the importance of his position in the Holy Family.  Others in contrast, under the influence of other later texts and ideas, have distorted these earliest the Gospel accounts as we will discover in later lectures of this series. 

But today, in our first lecture, we want to examine several artistic works, from the period of early Christian art to the Baroque era, that both represent Joseph as a positive figure and affirm his representations in Matthew, Luke, and John and consequently the roles Joseph exercised in his relationships with both Mary and Jesus.

In this first image of 4th century carving of a sarcophagus fragment from a large Christian sarcophagus, we see the work of an artist who understood the significant role of Joseph in the Christian salvation story.  Created in the fourth century by a Gaelic carver, this stone carving portrays both the events of the first dream of Joseph and the Annunciation and instruction given to him as well as the marriage of Joseph and Mary.  On the left side of the composition, we see Joseph asleep on a stone, caught up in his dream while a large angel, the messenger of God, stands beside him and speaks to him and tells him among other things to take Mary as his wife.  Thus, not surprisingly, on the right side of the composition, we see Joseph’s response to the angel’s message; we see a portrayal of Joseph marrying Mary.

In this second image, a carved ivory plaque created in the mid sixth century, perhaps by a Byzantine artist, we find another work that exemplifies the importance of Joseph.  It recounts two events: Joseph’s first dream and Joseph’s and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem.  Here, we see further affirmation of Joseph’s commitment to take Mary as his wife and to love her and her child.  In the lower half of this image, the carver shows Joseph holding Mary as she rides side saddle on their journey to Bethlehem.  It is a very intimate and loving composition indicative of the couple’s care for each other.  With his left arm around her and his right hand on her knee, Joseph holds Mary very close to him.  Mary, in turn, demonstrates her love and need of Joseph by putting her right arm around his neck. 

Carved for the cathedral archbishop Maximianus of Ravenna, pictured here.  This ivory plaque is one of several found on this larger work the roles of Joseph and the birth and infancy of Joseph. 

Substantiation of a deep respect for Joseph is also manifest in this next composition.  A 13th century stone relief by an unknown French sculpture of the Holy Family.  From the rood screen of a cathedral crypt of the Cathedral in Chartres.  In this exquisite work of art, the sculpturist created a truly familiar portrayal in which the father and mother of the newborn child appear to move lovingly in unison.  Mary gently touching her baby, while at the same time, Joseph slowly covers his wife with a blanket.  With the process, the artist manifest the tenderness and care of both who have been joined together in the mysterious and evocative birth of Jesus.

Similarly, Joseph is given a central role in this next composition.  For in this portrayal, which is also very familial, the artist has placed all three members of the family close together at a kitchen table.  Created by the Dutch painter, Jan Mostaert, at the end of the end of the 15th century, The Holy Family at Supper, clearly affirms the significance of Joseph within the Holy Family.  In this striking composition, the artist lets us see Joseph cutting bread for his family as Mary feeds the child Jesus.  At the same time, he shows us that while Mary is holding Jesus, the child is watching Joseph and appears quite intrigued by his father’s actions, and intrigue which in turn, seem to illicit an ever slight smile from Joseph.

Joseph’s importance can also be seen in this amazingly light spirited work of the Rest on the Flight by Frederico Barocci, created around 1570.  Here, we see Joseph and the young child Jesus playing and laughing with each other while Mary calmly focuses on her own concerns.  It is worth noting that this painting by Barocci was so popular that it was copied by the famous Dutch engraver, Cornelius Cort, as well as other contemporary engravers.  Here we see an example of the engraving by Cort.

The special relationship between Joseph and Jesus is also portrayed in this image by the Spanish artist El Greco painted by the end of the 16th century.  While there is an air of somberness and sorrow suggested in the postures of Mary and Mary Magdalene, the painter pushes the viewer beyond this perception with Joseph’s engagement with the child Jesus.  Although held securely in the lap of his mother, the artist shows us that Jesus’ attention is clearly focused on the face of his father, who holds a large bowl of which Jesus partakes free.

A special nature of Joseph’s fatherhood is also affirmed in this striking and elongated portrayal also by El Greco of Joseph and Jesus with the angels.  Likely composed as well at the end of the 16th century.  In this image, the Spanish painter presents Joseph as a towering figure with his outstretched left arm and hand lovingly protects his young son from the dark clouds of the world.

In turn, knowing his need for Joseph’s protection and care tightly grasps his father around his waist.  All of these images show viewers that Joseph did as the angel of God instructed him in his first dream and annunciation.  He obeyed the commands of God in his relationship to Mary and the child she was to bear.  Thus by following the commands of God by taking each of these steps as the writer of the Gospel of Matthew recounts Joseph formally declared that Mary was his wife and that Jesus was his son, and demonstrated that he had been called to play a critical role in the story of Jesus of Nazareth.

And yet curiously, few people seem aware of the positive ways Joseph is portrayed in the earliest Christian Gospels and even fewer appear to have reflected upon the significance Joseph must have had in the life of Jesus.  As many of our own modern cultural records show and as can be substantiated in a simple count of the number of Christmas cards each year that picture a mother and child, only Mary and Jesus.  If Joseph appears on a card, he is often represented as an elderly man who does not appear completely comfortable about where he is, as someone who is present but disengaged, as if  to suggest that his time with Mary and Jesus will be very limited.

We see this in this present painting, a composition of the Holy Family , created in the last third of the fifteenth century by Martin Schongauer.  Here, Joseph is portrayed as a very elderly figure and set some distance away from Mary and Jesus.  Typically, Joseph was represented in this fashion.  Other times, as we see in the present image, he was even represented as a diminutive and buffoonish figure.  This can be seen in the early fifteenth century drawing on paper of the Adoration of the Magi for a Book of Hours made by an unknown Dutch artist.  Here, we see Joseph located in the lower right hand corner of the image, and he is represented as a diminutive childlike figure, who in fact resembles very little relevance of the event of the Adoration of the Magi.  Unfortunately, many artists in the medieval and renaissance periods, represented Joseph as these two artists.

So, to put the issues into questions, is it not reasonable to ask first, why is it the case that so few people seem aware of the significant and positive ways Joseph is portrayed in the earliest Christian Gospels?  And second, why is it the case that so few people have contemplated that Joseph would play in the life of Jesus?  Certainly, part of other may be found in the answer in the specific doctrines of the Christian church especially those spiritual accolades upon Mary have prohibited Christians from looking at the figure of Joseph, and the important roles he played in the life of Jesus in the earliest gospels.  At the same time, another part of the answer is on the curious but remarkable fact that even Christian scholars have tended to concentrate on the figures of Mary and Jesus in their study of the Christian Gospels as well as later Christian literature.  As a result, they have often not acknowledged and reflected upon the numerable portrayals of centuries of Christian literature.  But Christian scholars are not alone in this regard.  For the lack of recognition of the significance of Joseph in the early Christian narratives and in later Christian literature and also Christian art can be documented in the work of other scholars as well, including literary specialists, cultural historians, and art historians, who in scores upon scores of studies and monographs, have often overlooked or ignored the portrayals of Joseph while seriously contemplating those of Mary and Jesus.

Certainly, the artistic images that we have seen of Joseph in this lecture  indicate that some people and artists have recognized Joseph’s significance and honored his roles in the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  But others indeed have not acknowledged Joseph’s importance.  This leaves us with two important historical questions to answer: first, why did some acknowledge Joseph’s importance and others did not?  Second, what were the factors that led to these different perspectives, and even to this day, shape the perception of many?  Two questions that must and will be answered in this series of lectures of The Other Person in the Picture: the Portrayal and Interpretation of Joseph the Carpenter.

Author: Dr. Philip W. Jacobs

Author & professor of art history and Christian subjects.

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