Saint Joseph Old Man or Young Man?

I’ve posted previously on the “old St Joseph vs. the young St Joseph theories,” but after the feast of Saint Joseph I wanted to revisit the topic since there are many more readers. It has to do with the theology of Saint Joseph and how he is depicted in Catholic artwork. I also want to poll you and get a feeling for how most people picture Saint Joseph in their minds. So after reading this blog post, please leave a comment.

Young Joseph:

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 1.06.02 PM

or Old Joseph:Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 1.06.40 PM

You may have noticed that there are two competing versions of Saint Joseph in Catholic art and devotion. One is the “gray-haired grandpa Joseph” and the other is the “young handsome Joseph.”

Why Are There Old and Young Joseph traditions?

The two versions relate to the Catholic teaching that our Immaculate Lady is a perpetual Virgin. So then, if our Blessed Mother was the most beautiful lady to have ever lived (something taught by all the saints and lately by Saint Pio), how then did Saint Joseph preserve himself from inordinate passions toward his virginal bride?

There are two ways to account for this. One way holds that he was already an elderly man and therefore did not have the “vigor” of his youth. The second is to hold that although St Joseph was a young man, he had been supernaturally sanctified in the womb and confirmed in grace for the entirety of this life.* Since he controlled his passions perfectly, he did not have these inordinate desires for his virginal bride.

Readers of this blog know that I zealously hold and defend the latter position: St Joseph, as Head of the Holy Family and on account of his intimacy with the Holy Family, was sanctified and confirmed in grace his whole life long.

No doubt, Saint Joseph was conceived with original sin, but like John the Baptist (and the Prophet Jeremiah), he was sanctified in the womb. Saint Frances de Sales, Bernardine de Bustis, Francisco Suarez, Jean Gerson, Isidoro Isolano, Cornelius a Lapide, and Saint Alphonsus Ligouri also hold that Saint Joseph was sanctified in his mother’s womb and preserved from all sin. This entails that all members of the Holy Family were sinless: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

The most ancient artistic representations of Saint Joseph depict him as a youth. Saint Jerome defends the “young Joseph belief” as the traditional belief of the Church and that held by Christians in the Holy Land in the 4th and 5th centuries. Saint Jerome also explicitly says that Saint Joseph lived and died as a virgin (not a widower). This also confirms to the belief of the early Fathers Saint Athanasius (d. 373) and Saint Gregory Nazianzus (d. 390) who taught that Joseph, like Mary, was a perpetual virgin and not a widower.

The “old Joseph belief” comes from the apocryphal Protoevangelium of Saint James (read it here at NewAdvent), which describes Joseph as an old widower who “adopts” the youthful Blessed Virgin Mary through the mechanism of matrimony. Yet this document was repeatedly condemned in the early Church and while it contains truth, it is not to be trusted in every regard – especially regarding the age of Saint Joseph.

So then, I find the evidence tipping toward the “young Saint Joseph” theory. The fact that art depictions before the fifth and sixth century show Joseph as a youthful man further confirm that this is the original and ancient belief of the universal Church.

Saint Joseph, Protector of Two Treasures, pray for us.

ad Jesum per Mariam,

Question: Question: How to think of Saint Joseph: old and gray or young and handsome? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

PS: The mystic Maria Agreda states that Saint Joseph was 33 years old when he married the Immaculate Virgin Mary. This would place Joseph about 19 years old than sweetest Mother Mary.

* “confirmed in grace” is a term to describe the miraculous preservation from sin – even deliberate venial sin. The Blessed Virgin Mary obviously had this gift, as did St John the Baptist. It is also piously held that the Holy Apostles received this gift on the day of Pentecost.

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  • J Mac

    I love Venerable Fulton Sheen’s reflection on St. Joseph: “But when one searches for the reasons why Christian art should have pictured Joseph as aged, we discover that it was in order to better safeguard the virginity of Mary. Somehow, the assumption had crept in that senility was a better protector of virginity than adolescence. Art thus unconcsciously made Joseph a spouse chaste and pure by age rather than virtue…To make Joseph appear pure only because his flesh had aged is like glorifying a mountain stream that has dried. The Church will not a ordain a man to the priesthood who has not his vital powers. She wants men who have something to tame, rather than those who are tame because they have no energy to be wild. It should be no different with God…Joseph was probably a young man, strong, virile, atheletic, handsome, chaste, and disciplined; the kind of man one sees sometimes shepherding sheep, or piloting a plane, or working at a carpenter’s bench. Instead of being a man incapable of love, he must have been on fire with love….Instead, then, of being dried fruit to be served on the table of the king, he was rather a blossom filled with promise and power. He was not in the evening of life, but in its morning, bubbling over with energy, strength, and controlled passion.”
    I would agree that the art of him looking old is to depict his virtue of chastity, because I would assume that at the time of the painters, and certainly in the modern age, young men aren’t usually thought to be chaste and virtuous. In order to paint chastity, they painted an older man. St. Joseph was a stud! 😉

  • Jen S

    Wow – is this true? I must say I have never heard thi. What about, for example, Galatians 2:11-13, where St. Paul confronts St. Peter for his hypocritical behavior?

  • Jen S

    “it is also piously held that the holy apostles received this gift on the day of pentecost.” Wow – is this true? I must say I have never heard thi. What about, for example, Galatians 2:11-13, where St. Paul confronts St. Peter for his hypocritical behavior?

  • Christopherus

    In the “young Joseph” theory, is there a consensus on how Joseph died fairly young (assuming he did die before Jesus’ public ministry began)?

  • Kathleen Carr

    Thank you for this article! I’m about to begin a painting of St. Joseph and envisaged him as a younger man but wasn’t sure if my inclination to do so was correct. I needed this documentation and I’m glad my intuition was correct because I thought perhaps I was only approaching this as a woman and from a purely human standpoint. Whatever the case, I just couldn’t imagine God saddling the Virgin with an old, wrinkled husband, but instead would give her someone closer in age, a partner and true spouse, that would walk with her as a support and friend, and with her same level of vigor. Your article will help me defend my vision for the painting with the mind of the church and has been further helped by the remarks of Venerable Fulton Sheen’s posted below. Thanks again!