St. Joseph Iconography

Happy, Holy and Blessed Feast of St. Joseph! Moving on from the celebration of some minor saint who is patron of some island somewhere, we reach today the feast of St. Joseph, Most Chaste Spouse of the Blessed Virgin, Terror of Demons and PATRON OF THE UNIVERSAL CHURCH. You know, this guy:

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This Bulgarian icon wonderfully expresses the tenderness and affection of St. Joseph for his family, and they for him. Joseph holds Mary and Jesus and lays his cheek on her head, showing both his love for her and her Child, his foster Son. Joseph’s attention is entirely on her. Mary leans into Joseph, who has the God-given role of protector and provider for her and Jesus, but her gaze is fixed on her Son. Jesus, nestled in her lap and embraced by the strong arm of the carpenter, turns his gaze to us, and blesses us.

As in all great icons, there is a world of theology behind these simple images and gestures. In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 1:20-21, an angel gives Joseph instructions:

“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”
When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home. (1)

The angel addresses Joseph as “son of David,” showing that Joseph himself is of the royal blood of the great king. He is instructed to take Mary into his home as his wife, bringing her and her Son under the jurisdiction and protection, as it were, of the King. Note the gold cloak Joseph wears – the color of kings.

Joseph has traditionally been honored as a most humble and obedient servant of God.His blue tunic, just peaking through, is the color of the sky, traditionally seen as all-encompassing, nurturing, feminine and passive in the sense of accepting. So Joseph’s cloths tell us he is a king, but not the Great King. His is to accept obedience to a higher authority, as he does without comment or hesitation when God’s angel gives him instructions.

His eyes are on Mary. All the saints are secondary causes used by God to effect our salvation; the first and greatest saint is Mary. Thus, in the economy of salvations, Joseph turns his attention to Mary, who, through her fiat, brought Christ into Joseph’s life, and into our lives. This is the mystery of the Body of Christ, in which each of us has a role and finds salvation through being a channel of the grace of Christ’s saving sacrifice to each other. No one is saved alone. Each receives God’s grace from the hands of others.

Mary of course has her eyes on Jesus, while acknowledging Joseph by the simple act of leaning on him. She and her Son in fact leaned on Joseph, who provided for and protected them the rest of his life, in response to God’s will.

Mary wears red, a color of power, as in fire, and life, as in blood. When she is depicted alone, she is usually shown in dark blue or black – colors of the night sky, of mystery, of feminine potency. Here, in her home with her family, her ‘true colors’ as it were are allowed to show. Alone, she is often depicted with some red or gold tunic peeking out from under the dark blue or black cloak:

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Seven Sorrows of Mary. Note the royal gold trim and jewels, and the stars on her blue cloak.

Alone, we are invited to think of Mary in her humility, with just a little reminder of her power and glory. Even in the first icon, showing her with her family, she has some blue tunic showing. Her glory and queenship rest upon her humility.

Finally, Christ, seated on Mary’s lap as on a throne and supported and protected by Joseph’s arm, turns His eyes on us, and blesses us. He comes to us not as a bolt from heaven, nor in private revelation, but in the simple, human son of real human parents. He is able to bless us, to be with us and to save us, because two humble people said ‘yes’ when asked to die to themselves and live only for God. While God needs nothing, He chose to glorify Mary and Joseph by giving them a key role in His act of salvation. He Who needs nothing allowed them to support and sustain Him, and through them He saved the world. We are to imitate Mary and Joseph, say ‘yes’ to God’s commands, and be given our salvation through becoming channels of God’s grace to others.

The Child wears gold for kingship (a stronger gold than Joseph’s) and white for purity.

Back to Joseph, here a some other traditional-style icons:

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From Orthodox Christianity

The first two images above have all the traditional elements: Joseph in a black or midnight blue tunic with a gold cloak, holding Jesus with both arms, eyes locked on the Child. Jesus, thus sustained and protected, holding onto Joseph’s hand, looks out at us.

The last two images, of the angel appearing to St. Joseph in a dream, also have Joseph in blue, but with a red cloak in the first and a brownish cloak with just a hint of gold in the second, lying in what might be a red hammock or blanket. In both the angel is dressed as a royal messenger.

There’s a lot more to traditional representations of St. Joseph, how he became portrayed as an old man with a flowering staff (medieval embellishments) sitting flabbergasted on the edge of the Nativity scene (nod to the mystery plays, or maybe the other way around) – but that will have to wait until next year.

  1. This calls to mind a story I once heard from a woman who did prison ministry. She’s trying to explain the perpetual virginity of Mary to a bunch of scary looking dudes who aren’t buying that Joseph kept his hands off Mary all those years, until one very large and scary dude opined that it made sense to him: “Who’s going to touch God’s Baby’s Mamma?”

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

6 thoughts on “St. Joseph Iconography”

  1. Great meditation, even better than Father’s at the noon Mass, but then he didn’t have ready access to your icons. (Might have had, sixty years ago, before the liturgists got ahold of the cathedral). He did riff eloquently on the “terror of demons” bit. I’ll have to remember to pray through my house again when I get home.

    Reluctant to be nit-picky, but I think the saints are “used by God to effect our salvation”.

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