Saint Joseph/San José

Feast Day:  March 19 

Patron of the Universal Church and the Discalced Carmelite Order, and a model husband, father, and worker. Protector of artisans, carpenters, laborers, the homeless, and those seeking a home. 

Invoked for safe refuge in times of spiritual and physical danger. 

Essay by Karen Billings 

Saint Joseph, the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the chosen foster father of Jesus, is mentioned only twice in the Bible. Apocryphal sources indicate that he was born in Bethlehem and moved to Nazareth to work as a carpenter. When he was 90, about a year after the death of his first wife, the priests summoned him to Jerusalem, along with other respectable men from the tribe of Judah, to select a husband for the 12- to 14-year old Virgin Mary. Each man brought his staff to the temple, prayed, and left it overnight. When the group returned to the temple the next morning, Joseph’s staff was the only one to have sprouted and blossomed. This miracle indicated that he had been chosen by God to marry the Virgin Mary.

After the divine conception of Christ by the Holy Spirit, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream instructing him to “fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife” (Matthew 1:20, KJV), and he did as the angel commanded. After Jesus’ birth, when King Herod issued orders to kill all children in Judea younger than two years old, Joseph led the family into exile in Egypt. After Herod’s death, Joseph led Mary and Jesus back to Nazareth, where he spent the rest of his life working as a carpenter and observing traditional Jewish practices. Joseph is believed to have died several years before Jesus began his public ministry, cared for tenderly to the end by Mary and Jesus. Public devotion to Saint Joseph was officially recognized by the Franciscan Order in 1399 and was spread during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by Franciscan missionaries, St. Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582), and the Discalced Carmelite Order. Even before Spain accepted this devotion, Mexico had been the “chosen land of Saint Joseph” for several decades.

Early depictions of Saint Joseph show him as an older man, as he was when he was betrothed to the Virgin Mary. The Counter Reformation (1545-1563) updated his image to that of a much younger man who would be better able to protect, support, and care for Mary and the Baby Jesus. Saint Joseph is usually pictured in half- or full-length as a bearded man tenderly holding the Holy Child wearing a green robe and a yellow cloak, symbols of new life, marriage, and fertility. He is often portrayed with a rod or staff of lilies, symbolizing purity, chastity, and his divine selection as the foster father of the Holy Child. Some depictions show Saint Joseph wearing a crown, symbol of his descent from King David and representing the crown of glory awarded Joseph by the risen Christ.  Several Mexican retablos include a red or pink hollyhock, or Vara de San José (Rod of Saint Joseph), which Spanish legend holds to be the sign of divine approval of Saint Joseph’s.

Saint Joseph is depicted as a young man either in a full- or half-length figure and always wearing a green robe with a yellow mantle as he holds the Holy Child dressed in red. The full-length representation of Saint Joseph (Fig. 1) shows the saint standing on a paved ground against a blue background beside a table covered with a gold-edged red cloth upon which a long-necked vase of roses is standing. He carries a rod or staff with hollyhocks, has a halo encircling his head, and wears a crown; the Holy Child, cradled on a white cloth in his arms, holds a cross in his left hand indicating the manner of his death. Figure 2 shows the half-length of Joseph carrying both a staff of hollyhocks and a sprig of white lilies; the Holy Child in his arms holds a small cross and His head is surrounded by rays of light and a set of stars. Another retablo (Fig. 3) shows Joseph and Jesus with yellow rays emanating from their heads against a blue background with red curtains or drapes hanging from the top section of the composition. A sprig of white lilies rests against the Holy Child, who holds a small cross in one hand and three nails in the other, implements of His passion and death.

Figure 1.  Saint Joseph, Anonymous Mexico, Nineteenth Century

Oil on tin. 14 x 10”. NMSU Art Gallery #1963.3.51 

Donor: Dr. Reginald Fisher 

Figure 2. Saint Joseph, Anonymous Mexico, Nineteenth Century 

Oil on tin. 20 x 14”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1968.2.47 

Donor: Dr. and Mrs. Andrew M. Babey 

Figure 3. Saint Joseph, Anonymous Mexico, Nineteenth Century

Oil on tin. 14 x 10”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1966.6.65 

Donor: Mr. Fran E. Tolland 


Carrillo, Charles M., et al. A Century of Retablos: the Janis and Dennis Lyon Collection of New Mexican Santos, 1780-1880.  Manchester, VT: Hudson Hills Press, 2007. 

Catholic Online. “St. Joseph.” Accessed February 16, 2019.  

Chorpenning, J. F, ed. Mexican Devotional Retablos: From the Peters Collection. Philadelphia: Saint Joseph’s University Press, 1994. 

Encyclopedia of Art Education. “Catholic Counter-Reformation Art (1560-1700).” Accessed Feb. 16, 2019.  

Giffords, G. F. Mexican Folk Retablos: Masterpieces on Tin. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1974. 

Giorgi, Rosa. Saints and their Symbols. New York: Abrams, 2012. 

Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. 

Internet Archive. “The Roman Martyrology.” Accessed February 17, 2019.

Souvay, Charles. “St. Joseph.” Accessed February 12, 2019.