By Anne Leader
19 March is the Feast of St. Joseph. Given his role as the stepfather of Jesus, today is celebrated as Father’s Day in Italy. He is only mentioned in the Bible in the first two chapters of Matthew’s gospel, and in the second chapter of Luke’s. We learn that he was a humble carpenter, which helps to explain why he only presented two turtle-doves at the temple upon Jesus’ presentation, rather than the expected lamb. Despite such a lowly societal station, Joseph descended from the house of David, thus fulfilling prophesy that the Messiah would come from his offspring. He is not mentioned in any stories after Jesus’ infancy, suggesting that he had died prior to his stepson’s entry into adulthood.
Apocryphal texts and the Golden Legend provided additional details about Joseph, which influenced artists’ portrayals of the saint, including the story of his betrothal to Mary. Though Joseph’s age is not mentioned in the Bible, later writers portrayed him as an old widower to emphasize Mary’s virginity and Jesus’ divine birth. Medieval and Renaissance images show him as very old, sometimes even decrepit and bumbling.
Some theologians complained about such portrayals and encouraged artists to give him the honor and respect appropriate to Jesus’ earthly father. By the early fifth century, St. Jerome claimed that Joseph, like Mary, was a virgin. It was not until the 12th century, however, that Joseph’s cult began to grow, thanks largely to the writings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who emphasized Joseph’s role as the protector of Mary and Jesus as husband and father. These ideas were promoted further by the Franciscans and other medieval devotional texts who celebrated Joseph as a paragon of justice,humility, virginity, and kindness.
Artists responded slowly to this new vision of Joseph. The 15th-century preacher Bernardino da Feltre lamented, “Oh painter, do not depict him … sleeping. Do you believe that, in this moment when the whole world was rejoicing, Angels singing ‘Gloria,‘he would be sleeping? Show him as good-looking and agreeable.” Slowly, more artists began to show Joseph as strong and competent, and some, like Rosso Fiorentino, depicted him as young and handsome. The sixth-century History of Joseph recounts that he died in the presence of Mary and Jesus, which led to his role as patron saint of a holy death.
Guido Reni, St Joseph with the Infant Jesus, 1620s, oil on canvas. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
Giotto, Flight into Egypt (detail), 1304-06, fresco. Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua
Rosso Fiorentino, Betrothal of the Virgin, 1523, oil on wood. San Lorenzo, Florence
Giotto, Nativity, 1304-06, fresco. Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Holy Family, The Doni Tondo (framed), c. 1506, tempera on panel. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Pietro Cavallini, Presentation in the Temple, 1296-1300, mosaic. Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome
Fra Angelico, Flight into Egypt, 1451-52, tempera on wood. Museo di San Marco, Florence
Giuseppe Cesari, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, c. 1597, oil on copper,
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Giuseppe Maria Crespi, Death of St Joseph, c. 1712, oil on canvas, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg