Medieval Art

Saint Joseph As Baby Daddy: An Illustrated Medieval Guide

Ela Bobek 18 October 2023 min Read

Let’s forget the traditional Nativity scene that we all know for a moment: Virgin Mary kneeling before baby Christ, Joseph standing right behind her, angels surrounding them, ox watching after the baby. I want to present to you the forgotten medieval iconography of the Nativity scene. I promise it will blow your mind! So ladies and (most importantly) gentlemen – let’s have a look at the Holy Family and follow the example of Saint Joseph.

This might come as a shock to you but in old medieval artworks (dating back to the 13th century) we can witness Saint Joseph taking an active role in the Nativity. Later on, this motif will be forgotten in iconography and we will slowly observe that the old man is sitting passively and turning away from the scene (just like in the Proto-Renaissance fresco painted by Giotto).

saint joseph nativity: Giotto di Bondone, Nativity: Birth of Christ, 1303, Cappella Scrovegni, Padua, Italy.

Giotto di Bondone, Nativity: Birth of Christ, 1303, Cappella Scrovegni, Padua, Italy.

Joseph takes care of Infant Christ while Mary is taking a nap.

The Virgin Mary needs a rest, that’s obvious! So who will take care of the baby? Joseph, it is.

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It’s dinner time! Joseph blows up the fire and prepares a meal while Mary is resting (or nursing).

Was Joseph a good cook? I guess that we will never know, but he seems to be very dedicated to cooking porridge.

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Once the Virgin Mary is rested and fed, it’s time for the daily Bible reading!

Mary needs some time for herself, so once again, the caring Joseph steps in. Although in the second image from another Book of Hours, the donkey seems to be a better source of amusement for Jesus than Saint Joseph…

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Joseph prepares a bath.

In this high gothic altarpiece, we can see another fascinating scene from the Nativity; Saint Joseph is helping midwife Salome to prepare a bath for baby Jesus.

The motif of the holy child’s first bath is derived from Byzantine iconography of Nativity and it became a part of Western iconography in the 14th century.

saint joseph nativity: Master of Vyšší Brod, Nativity, 1345–1350, National Gallery in Prague, Prague, Czech Republic.

Master of Vyšší Brod, Nativity, 1345–1350, National Gallery in Prague, Prague, Czech Republic.

Time to make some DIY swaddling clothes for baby Jesus.

Everyone knows that a good swaddle is an absolute must-have! People in the Middle Ages knew that too; according to the antique tradition, it was believed that the baby needed to be swaddled tightly in order not to develop deformed limbs.
The Holy Family couldn’t afford swaddling robes, so here we see Saint Joseph taking off his shoes and offering his stockings (or hosen) as swaddle clothes.

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Baby Jesus needs a snack? Fear not, Saint Joseph’s got you covered!

I absolutely adore this painting. The handy carpenter is giving Jesus pears, while Mary is resting in bed and eating (maybe a famous porridge made by Joseph?)

You wonder; how’s it possible that a newborn walks? It’s a holy child.

BTW. Did you notice the Byzantine motif of the child’s first bath mentioned earlier?

saint joseph nativity: The Holy Family in the stable with angels, c. 1400, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany.

The Holy Family in the stable with angels, c. 1400, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany.

Medieval art is full of surprises! I hope that you’ve enjoyed this selection of slightly forgotten iconography of the Nativity.
May humble and caring Joseph be your inspiration this Christmas season!

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