The Representations of St. Joseph in the Gospels of Luke and John and Their Effect Upon Christian Art

In this third lecture of this series on The Other Person in the Picture, we focus upon the Lukan and Johannine depictions of Joseph and the artistic presentations in history based on them.

In contrast to the Matthean narrative of the birth and infancy of Jesus, the Lukan account is longer and more detailed and mentions the Annunciation to Mary, the visitation of Mary with Elizabeth and Zachariah, the Song or Magnificat of Mary, Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus, the Annunciation to the shepherds, the adoration of the shepherds, the circumcision and naming of Jesus, the presentation in the temple, and Jesus’ appearance with the teachers at age 12.

Material found in 68 verses in the first two chapters of this canonical gospel as such a careful reading of Luke reveals that Joseph is also held in high esteem in this particular text. As was the case with Matthew, this can be seen in the number of times Luke mentions Joseph by name and makes direct references to him identifies him as the father, or parent, of Jesus, conjoins him with Mary as her partner and husband and conjoins him with Jesus as his father in this regard, it is important to acknowledge several facts.  First, Joseph is mentioned by name five times and referenced as a subject or object 32 additional times.  Second, he is explicitly identified as the father of Jesus two times, and in the latter reference, it is Mary who uses the designation in response to Jesus.  In turn, Jesus is identified as Joseph’s son twice. 

Fourth [sic], Joseph is specifically represented as the de facto father of Jesus on numerous occasions, thus from the earliest references in chapter 1, in which Joseph is identified as the betrothed of Mary and as a member of the house of David the portrait reveals a Joseph formally identified before Mary is formally introduced.  The introduction of Joseph’s lineage and the emphasis on connections between Joseph and the Messiah of the house of David, revealed the priority Joseph has over those associated with the priestly orders of Abijah and Aaron including even Mary. The portrait not only underscores Joseph’s heritage and its significance for Jesus identity and role but it also emphasizes Joseph’s righteousness obedience and parental affection and concern.

A sixth century Syrian Palestinian artist captures Joseph’s obedience and concern in the ivory pics featured in the present image that relates the story of Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem.

The same can be said with respect to this illumination which is several of the others we have seen is taken from the 14th century Italian Franciscan texts of the meditations of the life of Christ. Later interpreters and artists would find further evidence of respect for Joseph in chapter 2 of the gospel where he is formally portrayed as pater familias, the de facto father of Jesus and the husband of Mary, who first publicly acknowledges his relationship with Mary and thus with the child she will bear in the act of registration and then provide safety for her and the child. As a Franciscan illuminator again portrays in his account of Joseph preparing the stable for Mary and the child.

Subsequently, both readers and later interpreters would see the esteem shown to Joseph and his importance in the roles he plays as witness and protector when shepherds come to see the Savior. Such esteem for Joseph is certainly manifest in the late 15th century painting by the French artist, the master of Moulins, of the Nativity with the shepherds.

Further substantiation of Joseph’s role as a protector and caretaker of Mary and Jesus can also be seen in the 13th century stone relief previously noted from the rude screen of the cathedral of the cathedral in Chartres.

Still additional evidence of the high regard given Joseph can be found when Joseph accompanies Mary to the child’s circumcision and also presents him in the temple as recounted in chapter 2 of the gospel of Luke. This is certainly evident in the 11th century manuscript illumination of the presentation of the Christ child to Simeon by an anonymous German artist, in which Joseph, rather than Mary, is presented as the one who represents and carries the child and presents him to Simeon. For again, these acts reveal that Joseph is Jesus parent and father.  

Even more signs of this respect towards Joseph are found in Luke’s references to Joseph and Mary taking Jesus to the festival of Passover in his account of the later search for Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem and in his record of Joseph and Mary’s later instruction of Jesus as a child and youth, where again Joseph is directly identified as Jesus’ parent and father.  Certainly positive regard for Joseph in these events is found in this Franciscan illumination seen here. 

Similarly, high regard for Joseph is also visible in this next image in the mid 14th century painting by the Italian artist Simone de Martini of Joseph bringing Jesus from instructing the teachers in the temple. 

Later narrators and artists are all also offered one brief final detail in Luke’s portrait of Joseph in a reference to Joseph found in Luke 4:22 in this pericope covering verses 16 through 30 which recounts the rejection of Jesus at Nazareth.  Jesus is explicitly identified by some residents of Nazareth as Joseph’s son once again highlighting Joseph’s role as Jesus father. Therefore, in conclusion, it can be said that in Luke’s gospel, the author presents Joseph as a prominent figure in the process, Luke makes it clear that Joseph has significant roles and acts as father, husband, protector and guide in the life of Jesus.  Luke places great emphasis upon the relationship between Joseph and Mary, and offers specific scenes in which they act as a couple as husband and wife in their efforts to obey God, follow the law, and protect and guide their son.   While there is an emphasis upon the importance of Joseph’s heritage, his righteousness and obedience are represented as something he shares with his wife, the mother of his adopted child.  As a result, later writers and artists find Luke’s portrait of Joseph to be a foundation upon which they can base their own representations of Joseph. 

In addition to Luke’s portrayal of Joseph, John’s representation although brief also confirms Joseph’s role as the father of Jesus by offering to explicit references to Joseph in which Jesus is identified as the son of Joseph and Joseph is identified as the father of Jesus. In fact, John tells us that the members of the synagogue, where Jesus speaks, not only identify him as the son of Joseph but also describe him as one whose father and mother we know. Thus further verifying both Joseph’s position as Jesus father and Joseph’s marriage and relationship to Jesus mother. By speaking of Joseph in the present tense, they suggest that his role in the life of Jesus may be ongoing and likely has been of a substantial length.

This is certainly accepted by the 14th century Franciscan illuminator who includes in his text images of an adult Jesus with Joseph and Mary.  As one can see in this first image where Jesus visiting with his disciples, greets his mother and father, and in the second image with his mother and father alone. Thus, we can see that the gospel of John also contributes to our understanding of the way the early Christians perceive Joseph the carpenter.

Consequently having reviewed the portrayals of Joseph and Matthew, Luke, and John in great detail in these second and third lectures we can conclude that these early Christian narratives provide much more about the life character and roles of Joseph in relationship to Mary and Jesus than most people imagine.

Author: Dr. Philip W. Jacobs

Author & professor of art history and Christian subjects.

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