St. Joseph, whose voice is never heard in the four gospel accounts, was often overlooked during the first centuries of Christian art. In their efforts to underscore Jesus’ divine paternity, Christian artists downplayed Joseph’s presence in scenes of the Nativity and infancy narratives. St. Joseph’s discretion served the Church well in the first millennium of the faith, as Christians battled Arian and Gnostic heresies while striving to bring the Gospel to new peoples. In a world unsettled by the fall of the Roman Empire, Joseph made rare appearances, as the West scrambled to reconstitute a society and spread the faith.
Eastern art never lost sight of Joseph, however, slowly developing his iconography. A lovely icon from St. Catherine’ monastery in Sinai displays assorted activity around the Christ Child: angels applaud, kings bear gifts, shepherds play their pipes, midwives wash, but Joseph is set apart, the silent, contemplative saint.
St. Joseph emerges in the Age of Chivalry
The Middle Ages saw the Church flourish, owning lands and governing people, as the clergy grew into what would become the First Estate. With wealth and power, however, came corruption, plunging the 9th-century Church into a nadir of crime, scandal, and interference by temporal powers. Who would safeguard the purity of the Church and protect her from the attacks of self-interested sovereigns? St. Joseph. The Age of Chivalry saw Joseph ride in like a knight, ready to serve and to protect.
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