The Saint Joseph Chapel

The art at the abbey draws its inspiration from the sacred imagery of the thirteenth century — part of the great iconic tradition which flowered in the western Church during the early centuries of the Norbertine Order. This includes the art of the St. Joseph chapel.

To the average visitor it might seem strange to visit a shrine to Saint Joseph and not find the expected white marble statue. But we intentionally programmed the art at the abbey to draw its inspiration from the sacred imagery of the thirteenth century — part of the great iconic tradition which flowered in the western Church during the early centuries of the Norbertine Order. Saint Michael’s Abbey’s church plan includes six devotional chapels for private prayer, dedicated to individual saints. And these chapels also do something rare and theologically rich: they place devotional prayer within God’s plan of creation and salvation.

In each of the six chapels, layers of theological meaning overlay each other, much like three gears laid over each other in a works of a clock. First, each illustrates scenes from a saint’s life and sanctity. Second, each reveals one of the great Christological mysteries of salvation. And lastly, each displays one of the six days of creation described in the Book of Genesis. So, the Saint Joseph Chapel valiantly does triple duty. First, it recalls the life and importance of Saint Joseph as an intercessor with Jesus, as the Latin inscription on the arch above rightly proclaims: “May the Son of Joseph come to the aid of those here who depend on him and await his remedies.” It then speaks of the Resurrection and illustrates the fifth day of creation. 

The left wall (If you are facing toward the chapel altar) illustrates the Annunciation to Saint Joseph, a parallel the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary. Just as the Archangel Gabriel told Mary not to be afraid, so an “angel of the Lord”—the biblical term for an angel bearing the words of God himself—told Joseph the same thing in a dream, confirming that the child in her womb was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:20-21).

Opposite this wall appears an image of Joseph with the child Christ on his shoulders during the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt shown. Two statues—one Egyptian and one Greek—are broken to pieces and falling to the ground, signaling the end of the false ancient gods. Here is shown the fulfillment of the prophesy of Isaias 19, which foretold that the Lord would enter Egypt and idols would “tremble at his presence.” Together, these murals remind today’s pilgrim that Christ’s Incarnation is still at work in the world today, and with the help of Saint Joseph, all of our own idols need to come down before His divine majesty.

On the ceiling above the sleeping Joseph a circle surrounded by stylized rays of glory breaks through as if opened from heaven, where the hand of God appears on the fifth day of creation, while a citation of the Book of Genesis speaks of the “great and creeping things” moving in the sea, and the birds flying above the earth and under the dome of heaven. Accordingly, the image depicts an octopus and several types of fish below, and a peacock and flying birds above. Here God’s hand clearly shows that He is the true creator, and the animals that the Egyptians were tempted to worship were merely creatures subject to the true God.

The power of the same true God is shown in the chapel’s apse, where Christ reveals His divine power and raises Lazurus from the tomb. Saints Peter and John stand behind Jesus and gesture toward Him, while Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, kneel at His feet. Mary, dressed in purple, is mentioned in St. John’s Gospel as the woman who anointed Christ’s feet with perfumed oil and dried them with her hair, and so she honors Christ’s feet, echoing Isaias’s prophecy: “how beautiful…are the feet of him who brings good news…of salvation.” Jesus raises His right hand in blessing to call Lazarus out of the tomb, who appears in his burial wrappings. One man obeys Jesus’ order to remove the stone, while the other covers his face since Martha had proclaimed that there would be the stench since the body had been in the tomb for four days. But he would soon realize that Lazarus would be a pledge of the redemption promised to all, and he would only “reek” of salvation.

The half dome above the apse summarizes the meaning of the entire chapel: Christ reigns in the heavens as the resurrected and triumphant Lamb of God. He is the Second person of the Trinity through whom all things were made, and all things were re-made and restored to glory. As the Savior, He entered history, appearing with human form and human words, yet overcame the chaos of the fallen world with the revivifying glory of the divine.

When a beloved brother suffers the wages of sin dies, Jesus overcomes the justice of nature with his loving mercy and raises him from the dead. When Joseph is anxious or in danger, God speaks his word and brings peace and safety. And God gives us Saint Joseph as a model and intercessor, binding together the holy people of the past with the praying people of today, leading them together as members of the Mystical Body of Christ into the heavenly future.

Mr. Selvaggi is the designer of the sacred art cycle in the Abbey Church, and has served as Creative Director for the built environment. Mr. Selvaggi’s firm, Heritage Liturgical, was commissioned to design the mosaics, murals, statuary, and organ cases in the Abbey Church, among other furnishings and artwork. He speaks and writes regularly on Sacred Art and traditional architecture.

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