Part of the iconography that we use to identify pictures of saints are the symbols that are often portrayed with their images. Those symbols help us understand that the image of the bearded Jewish man we are looking at it is Joseph instead of, say, Peter. Of course, the most common images we see of Joseph are in portrayals of the Nativity and the Flight to Egypt, where his position with Mary and Jesus makes him unmistakable. However, when he is portrayed alone, several symbols have traditionally been associated with him. One or more usually appear in any image.
- The Child Jesus Usually Jesus is portrayed as a toddler or a very young child in Joseph’s arms. This represents Joseph in his protective role as the father of Jesus. Oddly, he is rarely seen when Jesus is older, such as in the Finding at the Temple unless it is a group scene with Mary and the teachers.
- Carpenter’s Tools Because Jesus is identified as the “son of the carpenter” in the Gospels, it’s natural to show carpenter tools with Joseph. The usual one is a carpenter’s square, an instrument used to form right angles, but it’s not the only one. Hammers, saws, axes, and even a workbench are often shown with Joseph. If you see such symbols, take a close look. Frequently the artist will use representations of the tools that were used at the time of the painting, which may or may not resemble the actual tools that Joseph used. Also recall that Joseph was a tekton or artisan who probably worked in stone and other materials as well as wood, so having something like a block of stone might not be out of character either, although that is rarely, if ever, used.
- White Flower or Lily Representing virginity, a lily is also used as a symbol for Mary. In Joseph’s case, it generally represents his obedience to God and his respect for Mary’s virginity since, if the idea that Jesus’ brothers and sisters are Joseph’s children from a first marriage, he could hardly have been a virgin when he married Mary. Sometimes the white flower is shown on a staff. This image is drawn from non-canonical sources that claim Joseph’s staff burst into flower when he was chosen to be Mary’s husband.
- Star of David Because Joseph was a “just man” who obeyed Jewish law, he is occasionally shown with a Star of David in the background.
- The Letter J Sometimes entwined with other symbols, the letter J indicates Joseph’s first name and is used as a way to absolutely identify him in an artistic representation.
When you invoke Saint Joseph in prayer, you don’t have to say much. Say, “If you were in my place, Saint Joseph, what would you do? Well, pray for this on my behalf.” –Saint André Bessette
Saint Joseph, help me to live my life with the same quiet dignity and honor with which you lived yours. Amen.
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