The Painting's Symbolism
Icons are more that religious art. They are sacred doorways to prayer and meditation that allow the viewer to descend to deeper realities than those depicted. Traditionally, painters of religious icons are said to write rather than paint an icon. This parable-icon of Saint Joseph is a written parable using symbols instead of words to lead the viewer into the mystery of holiness. Central to this icon is the image of St. Joseph as the original St. Christopher (Christ-Bearer), and, as such, the patron saint of travelers and pilgrims. With a secure hand Joseph carries the child Jesus on his shoulder, his other hand firmly grasping his staff, which both aids his walking and serves as a weapon to ward off wolves and enemies.
As the patron saint of workers, craftsmen and artisans, Joseph is depicted wearing a leather laborer's apron and standing in front of his altar-workbench. The unfinished wooden chalice on his worktable symbolizes the daily worship of laborers who, with love, consecrate the sweat of their labors, their body and blood, as co-creators with God.
In the Gospels, St. Joseph's profession is described as carpenter, but the original Greek term is tekton. This word is better translated as craftsman or artisan, and it implies someone who possessed many skills besides woodworking. To the right of the altar-worktable in this icon are blocks of stone and stone carving tools. Since native stone was used more than timber in ancient construction, Joseph was also most likely a stonemason. The various tools and building materials—and the manner in which they are employed—portray Joseph as the patron saint of artists and artisans of all crafts.
To complete the symbolism in the foreground of the icon, move your attention to the image of the child Jesus on Joseph's shoulder. In Matthew's Gospel (13: 55), Jesus is described as "...the carpenter's son." So, in this icon the child Jesus is holding in his hand a small hammer and several nails, for like any son he would have tried to imitate the work of his father. Joseph of Nazareth is thus also the patron saint of teachers. Besides teaching his trade to his son, as a father, he naturally would have additionally instructed him in the ways of the world and the realities of life. The child Jesus grasping the laborers tools of a hammer and nails also prophetically points to Jesus' greatest lifework—his crucifixion.
At the bottom right, the first scene shown painted on the leather hanging in the icon's background depicts St. Joseph as the patron saint of dreamers, of those inspired and guided by their dreams. An angel messenger is holding a Jewish wedding contract to inspire him to proceed with his marriage to his pregnant fiancée Mary of Nazareth, since it was the Spirit of God who had visited her womb. Joseph is thus the patron of engaged couples, who in one way or another usually struggle with a final commitment of married love.
Directly above this first scene is an image of St. Joseph as the patron saint of fathers and husbands. He is shown at the manger shortly after Jesus' birth in Bethlehem wrapping the newborn infant in swaddling bands. As his loving wife Mary watches, and under the blessing of the Star of Bethlehem, Joseph cares for physical needs of their infant son with great gentleness.
In the third image (in the top right), that same star of wonder still shines over the holy family, now fast asleep, as an angel messenger again is sent from God. Significantly, the angel is not sent to the Blessed Mother but to her husband. In that dream the angel instructs St. Joseph to take his family and flee in great haste to Egypt to escape the planned massacre of innocent children by jealous King Herod. By following this lead, St. Joseph becomes the powerful patron protector of families and of children his swift and decisive action protects his wife and child from abuse and death. St. Joseph, the Patron Saint of Families, is a favorite title among Italian Catholics.
In this third scene the angel points towards Egypt, a strange and foreign land whose pyramids along the Nile rise up toward the sun. In this strange land Joseph will again be visited in a dream, in which he will be told of Herod's death and instructed to depart from Egypt for Nazareth. By his journey to Egypt, fleeing oppression, St. Joseph becomes the new patron saint of aliens. With steadfast courage he guarded and guided his wife and son while they lived in an unfriendly, alien culture with foreign languages, religions and customs. His determination and strength during this difficult exile makes Saint Joseph a patron of today's millions of refugees, displaced persons and aliens, who so often are exploited and treated with contempt by local residents.
The final painting reveals St. Joseph as the holy patron of hospice care and a peaceful death, since tradition holds he died in the arms of his son Jesus. As the lamp of his life is extinguished, he is embraced by Jesus, the Light and Life of the world. Not only on his deathbed but during all his declining old age, Joseph was cared for and loved by God enfleshed in Jesus. Along with his other titles, because of his graceful acceptance of the aging and dying process, St. Joseph is the saintly patron of the elderly and the terminally ill.
For all of these reasons, along with the fact that he bears the ageless title of patronal saint of the church, the Body of Christ, the loving husband of Mary the Mother of God deserves the title of The Great Saint Joseph.
These brief comments only touch upon the spiritual implications contained in this icon. Take a few moments to sit quietly meditating with it, and so prayerfully move beyond the surface images. As you are drawn into the icon, allow it to integrate the opposite parts of yourself—your strength and gentleness, the practical person and the dreamer—that Joseph so wonderfully brought together within his person. May this icon inspire you to seek holiness, as did the great Saint Joseph, in the fertile space of daily life: in your work and your loves, in family and home, in travels and exiles, in your joys and difficulties and even in aging and death.