St. Joseph is merely portrayed as an old man in Christian Art to represent his virtues and analogy of God the Father

February 27, 2022 • 2 min

From The Life and Glories of St. Joseph, page 135
By Edward Healy Thompson, M.A.

It is, perhaps, not difficult to conceive why painters, in portraying the Holy Family, should have had a bias in favour of increasing the apparent age of St. Joseph as compared with that of the young Mother.

It must be borne in mind that it is here no question of actual likeness of either our Lady, St. Joseph, or the Divine Infant; at most these pictures embody an instinctive Christian tradition, and are figurative of prevailing ideas rather than representations of personal appearance.

Now, the primary idea of St. Joseph is that of the guardian, the protector, the support of the Virgin Mother, and this finds its natural expression, under the painter’s brush, in a marked difference of age, and that to a greater degree than there is any reason for believing to have existed.

Then there is the typical and mystical view. St. Joseph, as putative father of our Lord, represents to us (as we have seen) the Person of the Eternal Father, the “Ancient of Days”. We know that God is eternally young, or rather that neither youth nor age can be predicated of Him who is the Self-existing One, the ever-present Now, the I am.

Yet, in our impossibility to represent God as He is, it is our habit, when desiring to indicate the Person of the Father, to portray Him as a venerable and aged man, thereby figuring, not Himself, but His Paternity.

Even so, it seems a matter of course that he who was chosen to be His representative on earth should by analogy be pictorially portrayed in a similar manner, without thereby implying anything as to the actual age of our saint at the period in question.

In conclusion, it may be added that we have also the symbolic view. Gerson suggests it in the poem which he wrote on the holy patriarch. Why was Joseph depicted as old? It was to give us to understand that he possessed the virtues attributed to age: prudence, holiness, and purity of life. For in the Book of Wisdom we read “a spotless life is old age”. [Chap. iv. 9.]

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