The Representation of St. Joseph in the Gospel of Matthew and Its Effect Upon Christian Art

In the first lecture, we noted that in order to properly understand and comprehend the portrayal and interpretation of Joseph the carpenter that we would need to answer two questions. 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 perceptions of many? As we have already suggested, in order to properly address these questions in the issues a raise, attention will need to be given to the primary ancient sources that have informed the contemporary perceptions. This will involve consideration of several early Christian narratives from the earliest accounts in which Joseph is a central figure in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, to later Christian apocryphal narrative, in which his significance differs widely.  Consequently, in the second and third lectures, consideration will be directed to the earliest Christian narratives in which Joseph is mentioned the first century canonical Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John in order to establish a clear understanding of the ways they portray Joseph.

As we have previously noted, many of our contemporary perceptions about Joseph are at odds with the earliest Christian gospel writers representations and portrayals of him because the records of Matthew, Luke, and John indicate that Joseph’s role in place was a much more significant than is often assumed. Thus we will need to recount and summarize what they have to say with respect to Joseph.  As we do so, we will also take note of the work of different artists that have positively represented the significance and role of Joseph and their artistic compositions. They provide proof that Joseph the carpenter was an important subject for certain artists;  a subject whom they portrayed with thoughtfulness and respect, and even veneration. 

The Matthean account of the birth of Jesus is relatively short but full of information with respect to the character and roles of Joseph. In it mention is made of the betrothal of Mary and Joseph. Joseph’s fear and concern at the discovery of Mary’s pregnancy, his struggle with this his first dream directing him to accept the child of Mary as of the Holy Spirit ,his acceptance of Mary in her pregnancy, his abstention from sexual intimacy with Mary, the birth of Jesus ,and his naming of the child.  In addition, Matthew also tells us about the adoration of the Magi, Joseph’s second dream directing him to take Mary and the child and flee to Egypt, the flight into Egypt, the residence in Egypt, Joseph’s third dream directing him to return to the land of Israel, and the return of the Holy Family from Egypt to Galilee.  Material found in only 31 verses in the first two chapters of this canonical gospel.  In the Matthean narrative, Joseph is mentioned by name seven times and also referenced 16 additional times. Further, Joseph has also identified as the husband of Mary on two occasions, in turn, Mary is identified as his betrothed or wife three times.

We see this marriage portrayed as we have previously acknowledged in the work of a fourth century Gaelic sculptor. With respect to this in other ways, Joseph has conjoined to Mary and the child. It should be noted that Joseph is either united in the action in the Matthean narrative with Mary or with Mary and the child on 14 occasions. Further, Jesus is identified as the son of Joseph in Matthew 13:55 where he is recognized by the residents of Nazareth as the carpenter’s son. Most importantly with respect to Joseph’s prominence in the narrative, Joseph is the primary subject of the dramatic action in most of them at the in Nativity account. In Matthew, it is the case that we find a portrayal of Joseph that depicts his unique relationship to Mary and to her child, where he is represented as her husband but not identified as a biological father of her child.  This portrait reveals the fear and anguish that gripped Joseph when he discovered that Mary his betrothed was pregnant. How these troubles led him to prayer, sleep, and how in this time an angel of God spoke to him reassuring him directing him to accept the child of Mary and to name him thus claiming, thus child as his own. 

It is an account related with thoughtfulness and respect in a 5th century mosaic by an unknown Italian artist of the Annunciation to Mary and the Annunciation to Joseph in the upper left section of the triumphal arch within the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Respect for Joseph is also manifest in this next image the conflated 6th century ivory plaque we saw in the first lecture that was one of several Plex designed for the throne of Archbishop Maximilianus in Ravanna.

The significance of Joseph’s role was also evident in the manuscript illumination provided by an anonymous 14th century Italian artist for an edition of the meditations of the life of Christ.  In it, Joseph is seen holding the Christ child in his arms following his birth, just as one would expect a father to do.

Another manuscript illumination of the second dream of Joseph also from this edition of the meditations of the life of Christ, reveals the fact that God continued to speak directives to Joseph through dreams as time went on, directives which shows of always without question, obeyed the narrative source. For this is found in the account of the second dream in Matthew 2:13-15 where Joseph is directed to take Mary and the child and flee to Egypt this third illumination again from the meditations shows Joseph carrying Jesus as he and Mary journey to Egypt. Looking at this illumination, it is easy to see that once again the artist has acknowledged the importance of Joseph by portraying Jesus in the arms of Joseph. Subsequently, Matthew tells us that Joseph and Mary and Jesus remained in Egypt for some time. This manuscript illumination shows Joseph and Mary and Jesus living in their home in Egypt.

This next illumination shows Joseph engaged in his craft of carpentry while he is living in Egypt. The obedience, spirituality, love, and care for his family is also underscored in the account of his third dream when he is directed to return with Mary and the child to the Land of Israel. It is also portrayed in this illumination in which he is instructed to return to Palestine.

As Matthew relates, Joseph obeys God’s command in this dream as well, however on this occasion, Joseph’s obedient response is delayed by what he hears. Archalaeus, the son of Herod, is ruling over Judea in place of his father, which makes Joseph afraid to go there. At this point, he is warned in yet another dream to go to the district of Galilee, apparently discerning his way from there, Joseph takes the family to the city of Nazareth that though not divinely directed in the text nevertheless fulfills the words of the prophets.  Thus, it is Joseph’s spiritual discernment that leads him to choose a new location, Nazareth in Galilee, which is not only within the Land of Israel to which God had directed him, but also the exact place he must reside in order to fulfill the destiny of his son, according to the words of the prophets. 

One more reference to Joseph occurs in Matthew 13:54-58 which relates the rejection of Jesus in his family synagogue in Nazareth. This last reference to Joseph in Matthew is the only place where Jesus is described in the present tense as the son of Joseph.  Significantly, this designation is made by the very people with whom Jesus has lived and who have known his family, the people in the synagogue in Nazareth. This passage suggests Joseph’s role in the life of Jesus has been of a substantial length and may even be ongoing, providing further substantiation of the role and significance of Joseph.

Thus, Matthew presents Joseph as a very prominent figure who plays the important roles of father, husband, protector, and guide in the earliest period of the life of Jesus.  In his focus on Joseph’s heritage, authority, spirituality, righteousness and obedience, Matthew emphasizes Joseph’s importance within this narrative. Elements and characteristics the Caravaggio in the painting before us also captures as Joseph listens to the performing angel while his family rests.

Author: Dr. Philip W. Jacobs

Author & professor of art history and Christian subjects.

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