Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Aleteia
Sunday 29 November |
Saint of the Day: Bl. Bernardo Francisco de Hoyos
home iconSpirituality
line break icon

Why do churches have Mary on the left and Joseph on the right?

ALTAR

Jakob Lazarus | CC

Philip Kosloski - published on 08/16/17

Many churches in the United States have this alignment of statues. Why?

When walking into a Catholic church in the United States (and other places in the world), it is very common to see a statue of the Virgin Mary on the left side of the altar and a statue of St. Joseph on the right.

You may have never noticed it before, but now that it’s been pointed out to you, you’ll see it everywhere.

Well, the placement isn’t coincidence.

It’s true that there are no specific norms or rules regarding the placement of statues — the General Instruction of the Roman Missal only notes how, “care should be taken that their number not be increased indiscriminately, and that they be arranged in proper order so as not to distract the faithful’s attention from the celebration itself. There should usually be only one image of any given Saint” (GIRM 318).

In the past there was a custom of placing the statue of the parish’s patron saint in the center of the church, above the tabernacle, but that tradition has decreased recently in favor of a crucifix in the center.

In regards to the placement of Mary, she is typically on the left in light of the fact that placed there, she is on Jesus’ right hand from “his point of view” — from the point of view of someone looking out from the sanctuary.

This is in accordance with the Jewish tradition of having the Queen Mother sit at the right hand of the King. It is narrated in 1 Kings, “Bathshe′ba went to King Solomon, to speak to him on behalf of Adoni′jah. And the king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne, and had a seat brought for the king’s mother; and she sat on his right” (1 Kings 2:19).

Pope Pius X confirms this tradition in Ad Diem Illum Laetissimum by declaring “Mary sitteth at the right hand of her Son.”

Another explanation is due to the fact that the left side of the church was known as the “Gospel Side” of the church and Mary is seen biblically as the “New Eve,” with her pivotal role in Salvation History.

In Eastern churches an icon of the Mother of God is also placed on the left side of the iconostasis that separates the sanctuary from the nave of the church. One commentary explains how, “The Mother of God holds the infant Christ, and represents the beginning of our Salvation.”

St. Joseph’s presence on the right side is then seen in light of Mary’s privileged role. (It is also often the case that another saint is placed there instead of St. Joseph.)

However, if an image of the Sacred Heart is placed on “Mary’s side” then the statue of Mary is placed on “Joseph’s side,” as she takes a less prominent position than her Son.

At one time in the Church there was also the tradition of segregating the sexes, placing women and children on one side and men on the other side of the church. This may be why some churches have all female saints on one side and all male saints on the other.

So while there is no hard and fast rule, the left-right traditional placement was developed over time based on biblical texts and various cultural traditions.


MARY WITH CHILD STATUE

Read more:
Do Catholics worship statues?

Tags:
ArchitectureArt
Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read Aleteia.org every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in eight languages: English, French, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...




Top 10
LUXOR FILM FESTIVAL
Zoe Romanowsky
20-year-old filmmaker wins award for powerful...
Eric Clapton, Luciano Pavarotti, East London Gospel Choir
J-P Mauro
Hear Clapton and Pavarotti sing a prayer to t...
FIRST CENTURY HOUSE AT THE SISTERS OF NAZARETH SITE
John Burger
British archaeologist confident he has found ...
PRAY
Cerith Gardiner
12 Things we can be grateful for this Thanksg...
EARTHQUAKE
Bret Thoman, OFS
Two earthquakes couldn't stop these Italian n...
CATHEDRAL OF THE SACRED HEART
Fr. Patrick Briscoe, OP
6 Questions to determine if your heart is har...
VATICAN POPE GOOD FRIDAY COLOSSEUM
Kathleen N. Hattrup
Learn to pray with the early Church and to di...
See More
Newsletter
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.