Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Glorious Saint Anne – Iconography of Saint Anne, Day 3 – The Birth of Mary

Boccaccio Boccaccino, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, 1514-1515
Cremona, Cathedral
Following the angel’s annunciation that they were to become parents at last and their joyful reunion at the Golden Gate, Joachim and Anne returned home where “Anne conceived and brought forth a daughter, and named her Mary.”1

The Birth of Mary is commemorated by the Church on September 8th.  Also known as the Birth of the Virgin, it was a popular subject in medieval and Renaissance art. In many ways its iconography resembles that of the birth of St. John the Baptist. It takes place in comfortable, even somewhat exalted, surroundings, for Joachim is represented as a man of substance. He has herds and flocks and, according to the Golden Legend, when he and Anne married they were sufficiently wealthy to be able to live on only one-third of their substance. The other two-thirds they divided as follows “one part was for the temple, that other they gave to the poor and pilgrims”.1

Among the artists who have pictured the birth of Mary were:

Pietro Cavallini, who was an older contemporary of Giotto, worked in both mosaic and fresco in Rome. His mosaics of the Life of the Virgin in Santa Maria in Trastevere represent the moment when the severe Byzantine style begins to change into a more lifelike and relaxed style. In this domestic scene, two maids work at bathing the baby in the foreground, while in the background, two more place food and drink on a draped bedside table for Anne, who reclines on an upholstered couch.

Cavallini, Birth of the Virgin
Italian Mosaic, c.1291
Rome, Church of Samta Maria in Trastevere

Giotto’s image, from the Arena Chapel, shows several activities associated with the birth. In the foreground, two maids finish cleaning and wrapping the baby. In the background, the swaddled Mary is presented by an attendant to her mother, who lies in a curtained bed. At the left of the scene a neighbor appears at the doorway, handing a gift to one of the maids.

Giotto, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Arena Chapel
Like Giotto, his Sienese contemporary, Pietro Lorenzetti, set his vision of the birth of Mary in a sort of dissected building, so that we see interior and exterior at the same time. In Lorenzetti’s image we seem to see things from another interior room separated by columns from the main actions. The “columns” are actually the frames of the central panel and two wings of the triptych. The “room” containing the birth event fills the central panel and fills the right wing as well. The bed on which Anne reclines extends into the right wing where two attendants and a portion of the visitor who talks to the new mother in the central panel are also seen. In the left wing Joachim, who is sitting on a bench with a visitor receives word that he has become a father.

Pietro Lorenzetti, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c.1342
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

In the 1430’s Paolo Uccello expanded on the theme of busy-ness surrounding the birth. Here, in the foreground, maids attend to the baby, while a group of elegantly clad visitors satisfy their curiosity. In the background, St. Anne is seen washing her hands in basin, while a maid pours water, and another maid brings a tray with carafes of water and wine and something to eat. At the left another maid, carrying two dishes, hurries down an outside staircase.
Pietro Uccello, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, , c.1435
Prato, Duomo

In the north of Italy, the Venetian, Michele Giambono, presents the scene in a replica of a Venetian palazzo and includes Joachim as an observer, along with servants and visitors.

Michele Giambono, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, 1431-1433
Venice, Basilica of San Marco, Muscoli Chapel

Fra Carnevale (now identified as Bartolomeo di Giovanni Corradini) expands the scene and its activities still further, in one of the panels formerly known as the Barberini Panels and now divided between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

In the Metropolitan panel the scene of the Birth of the Virgin takes place in what can only be described as a palace, presented in intricate detail and peopled by many figures: servants, elegant visitors, huntsmen. The principal figures of Mary and Anne are almost lost in the crowd!

Fra Carnevale, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, 1467
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the early 1450s Fra Filippo Lippi combined scenes from the life of St. Anne with a painting of the Madonna and Child. Mary’s own birth is shown over her right shoulder, while the meeting at the Golden Gate appears over her left.
Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child
With Scenes from the Life of St. Anne
Italian, 1452
Florence, Pitti Palace
When Domenico Ghirlandaio painted the Life of the Virgin in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Florence’s Santa Maria Novella in the late 1480s, the principal characters, Anne and Baby Mary, appear almost as afterthoughts, upstaged by the visitors, and even by the “sculpted” putti on the chamber’s frieze. Interestingly, at the upper left corner, we see the earlier scene of a meeting between Anne and Joachim. This is also one of the earliest inclusions of "angelic" onlookers, although here they are presented as an antique (i.e., classical Roman) frieze of putti, the mischievous minor Roman deities who morphed during the Renaissance into the fully fledged Baroque "cherubs".

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, 1486-1490
Florence,  Church of Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel

In Germany, Albrecht Dürer, in his 1503 Life of the Virgin, presented a crowded scene where a few of the attendants appear to have celebrated too enthusiastically.  Dürer adds one powerful angelic observer.
Albrecht Dürer, Birth of the Virgin
from Life of the Virgin
German, 1503

In 1514 Andrea del Sarto produced a more sober version of the subject. His design harks back to the Ghirlandaio. Although the distractions are fewer, the visitors are still the central figures in the composition.  The angelic observers are confined to hovering near the ceiling or sitting on the bed canopy.

Andrea del Sarto, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, 1514
Florence, Church of Santissima Annunziata

In the years just after the 1517 beginning of the Protestant Reformation Albrecht Altdorfer produced a curious image where Anne’s bed and the Mary’s cradle seem to have been set up in a building that bears a striking resemblance to a church with both Gothic and Romanesque architectural features. Above their heads a crowd of celebrating angels wheel exultantly.

Albrecht Altdorfer, Birth of the Virgin
German, 1525
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek

Following the upheaval caused by the Reformation, the Council of Trent was called to reform the Church. It met in three sessions between 1545 and 1563. Its decrees prepared the Church to respond effectively to the Protestant challenge, but they also eliminated much of the old cultural atmosphere. The old extra-Biblical tales and fantasy-filled legends ceased to have influence and art became more realistic.

An early example is Carlo Saraceni’s Birth of the Virgin, a smallish painting on copper, now in the Louvre, dated between 1616 and 1619.

Saraceni is one of the painters that form a bridge between Mannerism and the Baroque. His image of the birth takes place in semi-darkness in a large structure that could be a palace or a church, but is bare of extra ornament. However, a heavenly apparition of celebrating angels appears in the upper left.
Carlo Saraceni, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, 1616-1619
Paris, Musédu Louvre

By 1620, when Simon Vouet, a French artist living in Rome, painted his Birth of the Virgin for the Roman church of  San Francesco a Ripa all inessential elements had gone. The large figures of the midwife and attendants occupy almost the entire visual space. The partial figure of St. Anne is barely visible at the upper right corner of the picture. Another figure with her may be Joachim or may be a servant. It is too difficult to see to be sure.

Simon Voet, Birth of the Virgin
French, 1620
Rome, Church of San Francesco a Ripa

Later in the 17th century the mood lightens greatly as, for the first time the birth is attended by angels. Whereas, in earlier pictures, the angelic witnesses were content to witness from above, these angels come right down to earth and participate.

In the Birth of the Virgin by the Le Nain Brothers from about 1645 three angels on the ground peer curiously at the baby or comment to each other while Joachim gazes at his new daughter. However, one small angel is taking an active role in events by warming a cloth by the fire. Saint Anne is seen in the background talking to a visitor.
Le Nain Brothers, Birth of the Virgin
French, c.1645
Paris, Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris

In Spain, Bartolomé Murillo went even further by incorporating two helpful angelic children. They have brought a basket of cloths to the servants and one angel is holding one up inspection. Meanwhile, the other angel is being investigated by a small and curious dog. Saints Anne and Joachim are seen conversing peacefully in the background.
Bartolomeo Murillo, Birth of the Virgin
Spanish, 1660
Paris, Musédu Louvre 
By 1700 the number of paintings of the Birth of the Virgin began to decline as aspects of Mary’s adult life received greater emphasis.


1. The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275. First Edition Published 1470. Englished by William Caxton, First Edition 1483, Edited by F.S. Ellis, Temple Classics, 1900 (Reprinted 1922, 1931.), Vol. 5, pages .

© M. Duffy, 2011

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