Saint Joseph the Worker

Nicholas Poussin’s painting of The Holy Family on the Steps of the Temple is wonderfully structured to convey meaning (as are all of Poussin’s canvases), and there is much we could say about it. Today, however, we shall dwell on the way in which the artist has represented Saint Joseph. The foster father of Jesus is in shadow, but not ‘in the dark’ as one who is ignorant. On the contrary, his measuring rod propped on the stairs and the compass he holds indicate his profession as a builder; and — since he is formally assimilated (through tone, shape and placement) to the temple itself — he is likened to the wise Solomon who built the first temple. Indeed, Joseph built the house in which dwells Mary, who is the Ark of the Covenant, and Jesus, whose Body is the true Dwelling Place of God with man. This is why Joseph is in shadow below a cloud; he represents Israel under God's protection: 'Then the cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of the congregation, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.' As Paul Claudel describes in a beautiful essay, Joseph is the just man who meditates on God’s law day and night. As such he attains the highest wisdom; so in Poussin’s painting he sits humbly, like one of the ancestors of Christ painted by Michelangelo on the Sistine ceiling, overshadowed by the divine presence, and crowned with glory.

Poussin Holy Family on the Steps.jpg