St Joseph’s feast day is keenly felt in Italy, where his is the second most popular name, whether Giuseppe, Beppe, Pippo and more. On March 19 the Vatican closes, and pastry shop windows are piled high with mountains of bigne di San Giuseppe, deep fried cream puffs dusted with powdered sugar. But nowhere do Italians feel his ubiquitous presence as patron of the Universal Church — watching over families, workers, or the moribund — than in art, where Joseph’s many guises have long prepared the faithful for his polyvalent intercession.
Joseph’s feast inevitably falls during Lent, (making his pastries an added penance for those who give up sweets) and his remarkable array of appearances — wizened virile, dignified, comical, contemplative, active or even strangely similar to other scriptural figures — lends itself particularly well to the practices of Lent: prayer, penance and charity. As St Joseph played a key role in his Son’s work of redemption, so he can guide us through the long weeks leading up to Holy Week and Easter Sunday.
Joseph’s special gift for prayer was exalted from his very first appearance in the history of art in the triumphal arch of Rome’s Basilica of St Mary Major. He is seen twice receiving messages from angels: in the first he converses with the angel, the second time he is depicted as receiving divine communication while he sleeps. In these fifth-century mosaics, probably designed by the future Pope Leo the Great, Joseph represents both the active life of prayer as well as the contemplative. This virile Joseph, a model of self-mastery, was an inspiration for both the great preaching saints like Bernardino of Siena and the most celebrated contemplatives St Bernard of Clairvaux and St Teresa of Avila.
Penitent Joseph was explored in a fifth-century apocryphal account called The Life of St Joseph the Carpenter, narrated by none other than Jesus Christ. The story focuses on the death of the saint and how the aged Joseph, plagued by fear of eternal condemnation for his sins, was comforted by Christ. This subject, enormously popular in the 17th century, was wonderfully painted by Francesco Trevisani for the Church of St Ignatius in Rome. Trevisani depicted a tearful Joseph on his deathbed, his red, exhausted eyes turned hopefully towards his Son. Jesus calms his moribund foster father with words of mercy while opening the heavens with a wave of his hand to allow the angels to escort Joseph’s soul to the Father. As we practice mortifications for our sins during Lent, dying a little to ourselves in the hopes of a share in Eternal life, we can look to Joseph, who was the first to discover the truth of Christ’s promise of redemption.
Joseph’s charity is evident in the Gospels. Despite his lack of recorded words, he showed steadfast, loving commitment to Mary and the Christ Child in his numerous deeds of caring for his family. In searching for a place for Mary to give birth, finding something to keep the newborn baby warm, packing the family hastily for Egypt, looking for work to support his wife and child, Every day, Joseph offered little actions for the love of God.
While some artists liked to show Joseph cooking porridge, laboring in his workshop, or standing by as the Magi plied Christ with gifts, the painter Barocci chose to focus on Joseph’s joyful charity during his Rest on the Flight to Egypt. In this painting, Joseph has already demonstrated what Pope Francis described as “creative courage” by getting his charges out of Jerusalem. Now the family, safely en route, pauses for refreshment. Barocci’s broad feathery brush strokes suggest that this is but a moment of respite; one can almost hear the gurgling of the water in Mary’s cup or feel the warmth of the sun reflecting off her straw hat. Joseph has pulled down a branch of a cherry tree and offers the berries to a laughing Christ Child. The glistening red cherries symbolize the blood Christ will eventually shed and although Joseph will give all of himself to help Jesus fulfill his task, this is an instant of joy, the true essence of Christian life. Whether talking to God, expiating our sins, or performing acts of mercy, Joseph shows us how to keep to our Lenten path with hope and joy, which is more pleasing and beautiful to God than even the loveliest of paintings.