Status symbols

The Cat – I will not even dignify it with a name – decided that the lap of Baby Jesus was the only place to be, one Christmastide evening.

Since the statuette “sits” on a custom-made ‘rock’, the moment he leapt off was also the moment the statue smashed against the window, and seven of the digits broke off into plaster slivers.

This week we got the statue back, perfectly mended.

I mentioned this in passing to one of my e-friends, and she asked whether I knew who the statute of a male saint with an axe, a jug, and a loaf of bread represented. Bingo! March is the month traditionally dedicated to Saint Joseph, in the Catholic Church.

Who better to elaborate on this than Therese Henderson, who, besides being an artist, also repairs and restores antique statuary. And we were doubly blessed, because she gave me a glimpse of her forthcoming book about Saint Joseph, her favourite Saint, which I am going to share with her permission.

When Saint Joseph is depicted in this manner, it is in his role as The Provider. His robe is usually of an earthy colour such as being, or tan, or brown. He wears a leather apron, or sometimes a woollen tabard, and sandals. Historically, the robe of workers such as carpenters or builders was knee length – shorter than the ones commonly worn by other workers. This was practical; there was inherent danger in climbing ladders and building.

Yet it is only old statues that depict St. Joseph in a short robe. Most people tend to think of the putative father of Jesus as a decrepit old man by the time he was espoused to the Mary. It could also be that modern sculptors do not know the reason behind the shorter hemline.

St. Joseph, as the Provider, has become involved in a fey bit of folklore. He is asked to “provide” a house for people who bury such a state in the grounds of a house they are hoping to buy – or sell. I wonder what happens when the person who finally gets the place does some gardening, and discovers a cache of statues!

There is another version of the statue of Saint Joseph; one in which he holds the infant Jesus in one hand, and a lily in the other, which is known as Saint Joseph the Virgin. Tradition tells us that when Mary was offered as eligible for marriage, she would not choose from between them, so they all put their staffs in a box. That of Saint Joseph was the only one to bloom, and he became her betrothed.

In this representation, the robe is usually green, and his cape is purple. The green denotes Joseph’s dearth of earthly wealth, and the purple cape indicates that he was from the Royal House of David.

Therese tells us that modern statutes portray Saint Joseph in a white robe; however, at the time, white clothes were very expensive, and very difficult to keep pristine, because this type of garment would have had to be taken to the bleachers, again and again.

And this cost money… and indicated vanity.

She also explains that the poor and the middle-class people wore clothes made of natural fibres, either in their natural colours or dyed with easily-obtainable dyes, such as greens and blues.

Yet another depiction of Saint Joseph, of course, is as The Worker. Yet again, his clothes are a tan robe and a leather apron; yet here he has a chisel in one hand a hammer in the other, and an el leaning against his leg or lying flat on the ground.

An el, still mentioned in the adage “give him an inch and he takes an el”, is the “L” shaped tool with which a carpenter makes corners square and cuts straight; it often has measurements in increments of inches. The shorter arm of the el was a standard measurement of a “hand” and the longer arm was the standard of a “foot’. These measurements were proscribed at Hebrew Law.

If you want to see some of Therese’s work, please visit


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