Ever since joining the Catholic Church and finding out that my birthday is also St. Joseph’s feast day, I’ve had a special affinity for this saint. The more I learn about this strong, silent man, the more I draw closer to him as my spiritual father and powerful intercessor. This year, as I’m consecrating myself to St. Joseph for the second time, I’ve also been reading The Silent Knight: A History of St. Joseph as Depicted in Art by Elizabeth Lev.
I received this book for review courtesy of the publisher; all opinions expressed are my own. This post contains affiliate links; as an Amazon associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
St. Joseph in Art
Art has been used throughout the history of the church to tell stories and spread the faith. In times when many people were illiterate, a picture really did tell a thousand words and helped spread the message of the Gospels and the stories of the saints. Ever since the times of the early Christians, St. Joseph has been depicted in art in various ways. In The Silent Knight, Elizabeth Lev explores these historical depictions of Jesus’ foster father, and what they reveal to us about Church teachings on St. Joseph and our understanding of his role in Jesus’ life and in the life of the Church.
In all four Gospels, a mere fifteen lines are dedicated to his deliberations, his communications, and his actions, and he disappears from the salvation narrative after the second chapter of Luke. So elusive a figure was he that he did not appear in Christian art until the fifth century. ~ Elizabeth Lev
Since then, St. Joseph’s importance has only grown as more and more saints have leaned into the intercession of St. Joseph. Pope Francis even declared 2021 the year of St. Joseph, urging Catholics to “go to Joseph.” He wrote that St. Joseph “reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation” (quoted in The Silent Knight). There is much we can learn from St. Joseph, and the artwork and history in The Silent Knight can help us reflect more deeply upon St. Joseph’s life and work.
This book aims to accompany the reader through the artistic wonderland that is Josephine iconography. It is a guidebook of sorts through the numerous historical, apocryphal, and theological vicissitudes of devotion to St. Joseph, revealing how each new facet of veneration produced a different trend in imagery. It attempts… to offer the reader a greater contemplation of the many virtues of this saint. ~ introduction
The Silent Knight by Elizabeth Lev
When I saw the title of this book, I expected it to be filled with artwork and pictures of St. Joseph. Instead, it’s a paperback sized book with glossy pages and more text and history than artwork. As I began reading, though, I was immediately drawn into Elizabeth’s rich descriptions of the artwork and what each facet of the paintings or carvings meant. Elizabeth is clearly an excellent art historian who has dug deeply through history and art to find pieces depicting St. Joseph, and makes those pieces accessible and understandable for the average modern Catholic.
Elizabeth begins in Chapter 1 by looking at artwork created immediately after the New Testament period by the early Christians. While early art abounds depicting the Nativity scene, St. Joseph is often left out of these scenes. Lev explains why:
Joseph’s absence in early Christian art, however, was not the fruit of callous indifference or careless oversight but of humble prioritizing and theological care. He remained in the shadows to allow the fledgling Church to spotlight the divinity of Christ and the Virgin Birth in their proclamation to the Gentiles.
Elizabeth examines relics, icons, and murals painted in churches to find St. Joseph. I found it fascinating to learn more about Church history through the search for artwork about this saint. Elizabeth stays focused upon the artwork and St. Joseph, yet provides enough details about the political and sacred cultures of the time to give a background for the artwork.
Devotion to St. Joseph really began to emerge after 1099 with St. Bernard of Clairveaux. I would love to read more about this great saint’s writing about St. Joseph, as he had a deep and common-sense insight into St. Joseph’s life and the motives for his actions. St. Bernard compared St. Joseph of the Gospels to Joseph of the Old Testament; both were given to dreams, both were chaste, and both were exiles in Egypt.
Other Medieval saints also had a great devotion to St. Joseph, including St. Gertrude the Great, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic. Lev notes that both the Franciscans and the Dominicans were “art patrons extraordinaire, sponsoring altarpieces, frescoes, chapels, reliefs, manuscripts, and more.” St. Francis also had a very public devotion to the Nativity, creating the very first creche.
In fact, it was the Franciscans who adopted March 19 as a feast day in St. Joseph’s honour in 1399. This decision was confirmed and the feast day added to the Roman breviary by the pope in 1479.
My Thoughts on The Silent Knight
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. As a lover of the saints and a history buff, I appreciated wandering with Elizabeth through the churches, relics and artwork of the past 2000 years to learn more about St. Joseph. She writes a readable, engaging history that helped me get to know St. Joseph and those who have loved him over the past centuries. Whether you are a huge St. Joseph fan or know the saint only from the few lines in the Gospel stories, I highly recommend picking up The Silent Knight.
If you are doing a consecration to St. Joseph, The Silent Knight is the perfect companion. March 19th is my favourite St. Joseph feast day, but he is also celebrated as St. Joseph the Worker on May 1st.
The Silent Knight is available from Sophia Institute Press, Amazon, and your favourite Catholic bookstore. You can read the introduction and first several chapters on either Amazon or the Sophia website.