The often silent and surprising history of devotion to Saint Joseph

About Sandra Miesel 19 ArticlesSandra Miesel is an American medievalist and writer. She is the author of hundreds of articles on history and art, among other subjects, and has written several books, including The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code, which she co-authored with Carl E. Olson, and is co-editor with Paul E. Kerry of Light Beyond All Shadow: Religious Experience in Tolkien’s Work (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011).

Detail from “St. Joseph, the Carpenter” (c. 1635-40) by Georges de la Tour []

As we celebrate this official Year of St. Joseph, announced on December 8, 2020, by Pope Francis, Catholics readily join in paying tribute to a great and well-loved saint. Surely Our Lord’s foster-father has always held a prominent place in the hearts of the faithful? Surely, we have always invoked the trio of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph? At the risk of shocking those who remember writing J+M+J on parochial school papers and those who make a personal consecration to the saint, the answer is no.

A world without St. Joseph

Imagine a world where no Christian is named for St. Joseph, where no religious entity bars his name. Picture St. Joseph absent from the Missal, the Breviary, the Church calendar, and the Litany of the saints. No shrines, no devotions, no hymns, no solo images, no popular customs, no festive foods honor St. Joseph. This world without St. Joseph was Christendom into the fourteenth century. Up to that point, St. Joseph was almost universally ignored, reduced to a mere spear carrier in the pageant of Salvation.

This situation still prevails in Greek Orthodoxy. Although their tradition calls St. Joseph “The Holy Righteous Elder the Betrothed,” it gives him no independent cult or solo feast day. Instead the Greeks commemorate him together with King David and St. James “The Brother of the Lord” on the first Sunday after the Nativity or on 26 December. Pointedly rated a minor figure, St. Joseph is something of an ecumenical stumbling block in the East.

The long obscurity of this now exalted saint seems incredible. But St. Joseph’s long march from Zero to Hero is a fascinating episode in the history of Catholic spirituality and one that resonates with modern issues.

Scripture provides minimal materials to fashion a popular cult of St. Joseph. The Gospels record not a single word of St. Joseph’s: he is a silent as well as a “just” man. Only 15 times do the Evangelists refer to him by name, which means “may God add/ gather,” (Compare this to seven mentions for Joseph of Arimathea who went on to star in legends of the Holy Grail.) Mark never uses his name, although John does call Jesus “son of Joseph” twice. Only the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke depict St. Joseph in person. After Jesus’ youth, he simply disappears, presumably dying before the Savior’s public life begins. He has no traditional burial site and leaves no bodily relics.

None of the above would have necessarily pushed St. Joseph into the background. Imaginative legends were concocted for nameless New Testament cameo players who came to be known as Sts. Martial, Veronica/Bernike, Longinus, and Dismas. So why did Christians ignore St. Joseph for so long?

A major cause was the anxiety of the Early Church to defend the Virgin Birth and the perpetual virginity of Our Lady. Minimizing Joseph magnified Mary. Although they mention him here and there, the Fathers remained studiously incurious about his life. For instance, the three volumes of William A. Jurgens’s popular Faith of the Early Fathers contains only six references to St. Joseph, all concerning his chaste but nevertheless real marriage.

A side effect of this Patristic neglect meant that Muhammed probably never heard of St. Joseph from Christian sources. Sura XIX of the Koran, entitled “Mary,” recounts her miraculous and virginal conception of the Prophet Jesus. But this exalted maiden is unmarried and narrowly avoids punishment by her scandalized family.

Apocryphal texts purported to fill gaps in the canonical Scriptures concerning Our Lord’s family. The most influential of these was the Greek Protevangelium of James, (ca. 150), supplemented a few centuries later with material from The History of Joseph the Carpenter and The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. In these less than flattering accounts, St. Joseph is a ninety-year old widower with six grown children—four sons and two daughters. The High Priest summons him and other widowed men to Jerusalem in order to chose a husband for young Mary. St. Joseph wins the holy lottery when a dove (or lily) emerges from his staff. Although he tries to beg off “lest I become a laughingstock to the children of Israel,” the High Priest insists. When Mary is found to be with child before their wedding, St. Joseph frets that she has been deceived by Satan as Eve was before her. Later at Bethlehem, St. Joseph is off looking for a midwife while Mary gives birth with miraculous ease while retaining her virginity. Eventually he dies at age 111 with Jesus and Mary at his side. Jesus promises to bless those who honor his memory.

Although condemned by popes in the West, the Protevangelium provided the East with its preferred solution to the pesky “Brethren of the Lord” problem: those people the Gospels call siblings of Jesus must have been children from St. Joseph’s previous marriage. (Western scholars, however, have preferred to see them as cousins.)

The Protevangelium was reworked in Latin between the eighth and ninth centuries as The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. This spread legends about St. Joseph throughout Western Christendom. They gained further popularity by appearing in the Middle Ages’ favorite book about saints, The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine (1298). Jacobus discusses St. Joseph only in connection with feasts of Our Lord and Our Lady because he did not yet have a feast day of his own.

Such sources made an elderly St. Joseph subordinate to Mary a stock figure in medieval literature. For instance, in the fifteenth century English mystery play Joseph, he’s a querulous and comical codger who fears that he has been cuckholded.

But the low point of St. Joseph’s position in medieval eyes has to be the story of Bl. Herman Joseph of Steinfeld, a Norbertine priest (d. 1240). Cozy apparitions that he had had from childhood climaxed in a mystical marriage with his “sweetheart,” the Blessed Virgin. Afterwards, the holy man added “Joseph” to his birth name Herman, symbolically displacing St. Joseph in Mary’s affections.

St. Joseph appears in a mosaic illustrating the Presentation at St. Mary Major at Rome (ca. 440) but he was generally marginalized in medieval art. Illuminated manuscripts depicted the grey-bearded saint only in Gospel scenes, never in devotional images. At least Northern Gothic artists let him be active in caring for the Christ Child but only in menial tasks such as finding water, cooking, or swathing the Infant in his wooly hose. But the Merode Altarpiece (ca. 1425) goes beyond these conventions to show St. Joseph working alone in his carpentry shop.

Tuscan painters developed a very different art motif in the fourteenth century. The “charivari of St. Joseph” shows Mary’s disappointed young suitors—those who failed the High Priest’s fitness test—waving their staves angrily and threatening elderly St. Joseph during his wedding to Mary. This reflects contemporary social conditions that left many vigorous youths unable to marry while older men snapped up tender maidens with rich dowries.

Even at the end of the Middle Ages, when the spiritual needs of families gained more attention, St. joseph was still being pushed into the background. “The Holy Kindred,” a subject popular with the bourgeoisie of Northern Europe, depicts a gathering of Our Lady’s whole family. St. Joseph and all the other husbands merely stand behind a barrier to watch their seated womenfolk and playing children. Only after 1500, when patriarchy was growing sterner, does St. Joseph move into the circle of activity and get to touch Baby Jesus.

Medieval parents, however, continued to avoid the name Joseph for their children. One looks in vain for any historical figures named for him. It was so out of favor that only a single Guiseppe appears—late—on a list of 53,000 Tuscan householders collected before 1530. The earliest Catholic saints bearing St. Joseph’s name came along even later: Canary Islander St. Joseph Anchieta (b. 1534) and Spaniard St Joseph Calasanctius (b. 1556).

A slow-growing devotion

But ever so slowly, local Churches began honoring St. Joseph. In Egypt, where The History of Joseph the Carpenter had originated (ca. 300-500), Coptic Christians had given him his own feast day (20 July) by the end of the first millennium. The Year 1000 found St. Joseph mentioned in two or three local saint lists in Ireland and Germany. Latin Catholics celebrated his feast day for the first time at Winchester, England around 1030. St. Joseph enjoyed his first dedication of an oratory (1074 at Parma, Italy), a church (1129 at Bologna, Italy), and a chapel (1254 at Joinville, France).

Meanwhile, St. Joseph attracted private devotion from Saints Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), Gertrude the Great (d. 1302), Birgitta of Sweden (d. 1373), and even the heterodox Franciscan Peter Olivi (d. 1298). He had entered the special Breviaries used among Carmelites, Franciscans, and Servites by the end of the fourteenth century. His feast day was fixed on 19 March, where it remains to this day.

This gradually building medieval interest in St. Joseph might not have carried him to later prominence without the calamities of the fourteenth century. That era opened with unprecedented famine around the shores of the North Sea. The ruinous Hundred Years’ War between England and France sucked in other states. Civil war tore at Castile, Portugal and Scotland. Poland-Lithuania battled of the Franciscan Order. for its existence. Peasants and artisans rose in revolt from Tuscany to Flanders, England to Estonia. Heresies, corruption, and religious hysteria disfigured the Church while she suffered the Babylonian Captivity and the Great Western Schism. Over all these miseries rode the Black Death which would kill more than a quarter of Europe’s people in the first of its many assaults.

These multiple horrors inflicted on families and communities cried out for heavenly healing. Reform-minded French theologian Jean Gerson (d. 1429), Chancellor of the University of Paris and a noted spiritual writer, proposed St. Joseph as the ideal family man and protector. Gerson’s 2957-line poem the Josephina promoted the saint and his timely virtues across Europe.

Gerson’s ideas were amplified by his contemporary, St. Bernardine of Siena (d. 1444), a spell-binding preacher and a reformer of the Franciscan Order. St. Bernardine labored all his life to evangelize Italian city-states, whose proud consumerist culture let money distort elite marriage patterns. These societies were further disfigured by widespread attempts at contraception and a streak of sodomy.

Gerson and St. Bernardine gathered up existing pro-Joseph trends and rewrote his role in Salvation History. Rejecting the traditional figure of an elderly St. Joseph, they insisted that the saint must have been a strong young man, well able to care for the Holy Family. St. Bernardine struck an especially sympathetic note with his urban audiences by calling St. Joseph a “diligent administrator” who worked day and night supporting his loved ones.

Furthermore, they claimed that St. Joseph was a virgin, not a widower. God had lavished special graces on him, including cleansing him from Original Sin before birth, that prepared him to be a fitting spouse for Mary. Gerson and St. Bernardine also believed that St. Joseph had been assumed into heaven after his death. Thus, the Holy Family had been reunited body and soul to maintain the same bond of charity that had joined them together on earth. Gerson hailed them in these words: “O venerable trinity Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, which divinity has joined, the concord of love!”

By the sixteenth century, devotion to St. Joseph was flourishing mightily in Spain. St. Teresa of Avila (d. 1582) became his great advocate because she attributed her recovery from paralysis to his intercession. She praised “the glorious St. Joseph” as her “father and lord.” She fervently longed “to persuade all to be devoted to him” as a helper in every need.

In the 1550s, St. Teresa was also dreaming of reforming her Carmelite Order. She placed this difficult project—and the dangerous journeys it required—under St. Joseph’s protection. She dedicated twelve of the seventeen new monasteries she founded to the saint and adorned all of them with his solo statue, honors hitherto unknown.

St. Teresa’s enthusiasm infected others, notably her friend and fellow Discalced Carmelite Jeronimo Gracian. This friar’s popular Josephina (1597) repeated earlier praises for the saint and declared him the man who most resembled Christ in “countenance, speech, physical constitution, custom, inclinations, and manner.” Gracian also plucked the command Ite ad Joseph (“Go to Joseph”) from the story of the Old Testament patriarch Joseph (Gn 41: 55) to use as the New Testament saint’s motto. It is still often inscribed on his altars and images.

Carmelite devotion to St. Joseph spread to other religious orders within Spain and throughut the Spanish Empire. The first foundation of St. Teresa’s nuns in France (1604) transplanted her spirituality to the French “Century of Saints.” Her love of St. Joseph struck particularly deep roots in the heart of St. Francis de Sales (d. 1622), the great advocate of holiness in everyday life.

St. Francis built Josephite piety into the Order of the Visitation that he co-founded with St. Jane de Chantal (d. 1641). Visitandine nuns were directed to say a daily chaplet, litany, and meditative prayers to St. Joseph. St. Francis himself eloquently preached to them about his favorite saint.

The flourishing of the stalwart family saint 

The nineteenth of St. Francis’s Spiritual Conferences extolls the charity, humility, courage, constancy, and strength of St. Joseph. These virtues are envisioned as flowers embroidered on his heavenly garments. As the Savior’s guardian, St. Joseph must have been “more valiant than David and wiser than Solomon.” As the human being closest to the Blessed Virgin in perfection, he was worthy of the special intimacy he enjoyed with Jesus. St. Francis was also the liveliest publicist for St. Joseph’s resurrection and assumption. He presented the saint as “the glorious father of our life and our love,” as well as a tremendous intercessor and patron of parents, workers, and the dying.

St. Joseph the stalwart family saint meshed nicely with Counter-Reformation strategies for re-evangelizing Christendom. His strength and dignity fit Early Modern ideals of patriarchal authority: families were encouraged to imitate the harmonious order of the Holy Family headed by St. Joseph. No wonder the saint became one of heaven’s brightest stars in the seventeenth century.

St. Joseph’s growing reputation also left its mark on Renaissance and Baroque art. At the turn of the sixteenth century, Italian paintings such as Raphael’s Betrothal of the Virgin (1504) exalt the religious significance of matrimony over its social and economic aspects. They show St. Joseph as a model husband dutifully marrying in a Church ceremony, unlike contemporary aristocrats who wed at home before a notary. This public relations campaign was, however, rendered obsolete later in the century after the Council of Trent required all Catholics to marry before a priest and two witnesses.

Other Counter-Reformation policies affected the familiar iconography of St. Joseph. In 1570, Johannes Molanus, Rome’s arbiter of religious art, demanded a purge of legendary material. Among the subjects he denounced were the Holy Kindred and apocryphal accounts of St. Joseph’s life. Molanus decreed that the saint be represented as young and vigorous, with the Child Jesus firmly under his paternal authority.

Baroque artists did not always obey these rules. St. Joseph kept his miraculous flowering staff and sometimes his grey hairs. But fresh images of St. Joseph were created to meet market demand, especially in the Hispanic world where he was a royal favorite. Both El Greco (in 1597) and Zurbaran (n 1636) painted portraits of a strong, black-bearded St. Joseph walking hand in hand with the Holy Child. This motif of a man leading God would be much imitated because it captures the saint’s fatherly love so well. Zurbaran’s more formal Coronation of St. Joseph (1636) shows the Our Risen Lord awarding his foster father a floral crown of glory. Murillo’s delightful genre scene The Holy Family with a Little Bird and his St. Joseph with the Christ Child (both 1670’s) depict the saint as a young and darkly handsome Spanish father.

Engravings made in the Spanish Netherlands spread such imagery throughout Catholic Europe and carried it to the New World. In Mexico and the Andes, where the Spanish conquest and European diseases still left cruel scars, Indians embraced St. Joseph as their spiritual father. Colonial artists made charmingly naïve paintings of their saint into the eighteenth century. Under a bell-shaped crown, his face is the face of Jesus and his garments are spangled with gilt flowers.

The Church showered St. Joseph with new honors in Early Modern times. She gave him official patronages: Mexico (1555), Canada (1624), Bohemia (1655), Austria (1675), the Chinese missions (1678), and all of Spain’s dominions (1689). Modern Belgium inherited his patronage from the Spanish Empire. Of course, St. Joseph continued to be invoked by families, carpenters, woodworkers, doubters, travelers, house hunters, and the dying.

The Roman Calendar had first listed St. Joseph’s feast day as 19 March in 1479. He received his own special office in the Roman Breviary in 1714 and his name was inserted in the Litany of Saints in 1729. The month of March and Wednesday of all weeks became specially associated with him.

The first religious order dedicated to the saint was the Congregation of St. Joseph founded at Le Puy, France in 1650. Dozens of orders now serving in active ministries worldwide stem from those French sisters. Many other congregations with different roots also honor the saint, whether his name appears in their formal designation or not.

Patron, guide, and model

Like other traditional religious practices, Joseph-centered piety suffered with the advent of Modern times. Families, communities, and the Church came under cruel pressure in the new industrialized, militantly secular era. But a succession of popes saw St. Joseph as a prime healer for contemporary woes. They sought new ways to draw his intercession. In 1847, St. Pius IX ordered that a feast of the Patronage of St. Joseph be celebrated everywhere on the third Wednesday after Easter. The same Pope, now the “Prisoner of the Vatican” following the Unification of Italy, declared St. Joseph official patron of the Church in 1870.

Leo XIII’s encyclical Quam pluries (1889) invokes St. Joseph against the religious and social crises of his day. Besides expressing familiar sentiments on the saint’s singular virtues, he asks the poor to take St. Joseph, not Socialism, as their guide to justice.

The rise of Bolshevism three decades later made that last thought more relevant than Leo could have envisioned. In 1930, Pius XI named St. Joseph a special protector of Russia to counteract Soviet persecution of Christians and invoked him again seven years later against atheistic Communism. In 1955, Pius XII replaced the Patronage of St. Joseph with a new feast of St. Joseph the Worker on 1 May, the traditional day for working class, Socialist, and Communist festivities. Since then, new images of the saint tend to feature carpenter’s tools rather than lilies.

To call down blessings on the Second Vatican Council, St. John XXIII made St. Joseph its special patron in 1961 and inserted his name in the Canon of the Mass in 1962. (The latter innovation eventually drove a few outraged Lefebvrist priests to form the sedevacatist Society of St. Pius V.) But St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Redemptoris Custos (1989) broadens his predecessors’ concerns.

For St. John Paul II, the mystery of St. Joseph’s faith-based obedience to God plays out in the family, “sanctuary of love and cradle of life.” He emphasizes the reality of the saint’s marriage and paternity: self-giving love is what matters. Outside the family, St. Joseph “brought human wok closer to the mystery of the Redemption.” He is our model for harmonizing the active and the contemplative life. Inheritor of the Old Covenant, his association with Jesus and Mary in their “domestic church” makes him a fitting patron of the universal Church born of the New Covenant.

Redemptoris Custos places St. Joseph on the front line of efforts to renew the family, society, and the Church. With chastity and fatherhood disparaged, workers devalued, and the true Faith fading, now more than ever, we must “Go to Joseph.”