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Joseph, Saint

jesus mary marriage medieval

Joseph was the husband of the Virgin*Mary. He is described in the Gospels as a pious man, of kingly descent a craftsman (Matthew 13:55, translated as “carpenter”). Matthew describes how he was visited by an *angel in a dream, before his marriage to Mary; the angel reassured him that his pregnant wife-to-be was divinely chosen to give birth to the savior Jesus. After their marriage, Joseph is described as having been present at the birth of Jesus at Jesus’ *Circumcision and *Presentation in the Temple, again alerted by an angel of the upcoming *Massacre of the Innocents, and taking Mary and the infant Jesus on the *Flight into Egypt. He features again in the Gospel accounts of the search for and discovery of the young Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem. Although mentioned by name (as Jesus’ “father”) several more times in the Gospels, Joseph plays no further part in the canonical narratives.


Many further details about Joseph are found in apocryphal sources such as the Protevangelium of James and the fifth-century History of Joseph the Carpenter , which provided further materials for pictorial narratives concerning the betrothal and *Marriage of the Virgin and clarified Joseph’s advanced age (well over eighty) when he married Mary. He is also said to have instructed the boy Jesus in the carpentry trade and to have been a widower, with several children from a former marriage. Apocryphal sources also describe how Jesus, Mary, and angels were present at his *death, providing an ideal model for late medieval images of a “good” death .


Throughout early Christian and medieval art, Joseph is generally depicted as an elderly figure, with white hair and beard. He may carry a crutch, flowering rod, or carpentry tools. Although he features significantly as the recipient of angelic dream visions and in the flight of the *Holy Family into Egypt, he often appears as a somewhat ancillary figure in (especially early) images of the birth of Jesus where, if present at all, he may be shown somewhat removed, brooding, or contemplative. The tendency to characterize Joseph as an impotent old man increases in later medieval western art, in which his rough clothing and doddering old age are in stark contrast to the youthful grace of his virginal wife. While devotion to Joseph arose early in the Byzantine church, a more positive pictorial assessment and liturgical position for Joseph developed later in the west, especially in the postmedieval period.

Josephson, Brian David [next] [back] Joseph of Arimathea

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