Sunday, July 17, 2011

Glorious St. Anne – Iconography of St. Anne, Day 1 – Announcing Mary’s Birth

Veit Stoss, Sts. Anne and Joachim
German, Painted wood, 1477-1489
Krakow, Church of St. Mary

July 26th is the feast of Saints Anne and Joachim, the names traditionally given to the parents of the Virgin Mary, the grandparents of Jesus.

The names first appeared in the Protoevangelion of James, written in the mid-second century. Their real names are unknown, although it is certainly possible that the names we know are correct.

During the nine days leading up to the feast day churches with a special devotion to St. Anne often hold a special prayer event called a “novena” (from the Latin for the number 9). Here in New York City my home parish of St. Jean Baptiste is blessed by such a novena.  If you are in the New York area you will be very welcome to join us.

And, while I will also attend the novena in person, this is my own personal web offering to St. Anne and her Grandson –- ten essays on the iconography of Saints Anne and Joachim.

Blessed Virgin Mary with Saints Anne and Joachim
from the Lisle Hours
English, 1316-1331
New York, Morgan Library
MS G.50, fol. 17

There is no record of Mary’s parents, whatever their names may have been, in the canonical New Testament. So, their names and all the stories we have about them come from non-canonical, apocryphal sources, such as the Protoevangelion of James. That the sources are non-canonical need not concern us, as the story of their lives is not an actual article of faith. Old traditions, transmitted orally, often have kernels of truth.

Blessed Virgin Mary with Saints Anne and Joachim
from Speculum humanae salvationis
France, Mid-15th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 188, fol. 8v
Initially, Joachim and Anne were more honored in the Eastern (Greek-speaking) Church than in the Western (Latin-speaking) Church. However, the inclusion of material drawn from the Protoevangelion into the extremely influential The Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea) by Jacobus de Voragine (written in the mid-13th century) spread the story of Joachim and Anne to the West, where these saints, and especially St. Anne, became as popular as they were in the Eastern Church. 

In many ways the legends that surround Mary’s parents draw on several sources in both the Old and New Testaments. The theme of barren parents made fruitful in order to produce a special child and to whom this birth is announced by a supernatural messenger occurs in several places. There is the story of Abraham and Sarah, the story of the birth of Samuel, and that of the birth of John the Baptist. It is, therefore, not surprising that the story of Anne and Joachim should have this element as well.

Joachim and Anne

Joachim's Sacrifice Rejected
from Hours of the Virgin
French (Paris), 14900-1500
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliothek
MS 76 F 14, fol. 29r (detail)

In the story told in the Golden Legend, Joachim, who hailed from Nazareth in Galilee, married Anne, who came from Bethlehem in Judea. Both were descendents of the house of David.

A Sacrifice Scorned

After 20 years of childless marriage they had prayed to God that if they should have a child, they would dedicate that child to His service. At this point, a priest of the Temple rejected a sacrifice brought by Joachim on the grounds that he was childless and, therefore, did not have the standing necessary to offer acceptable sacrifice.

Giotto, Rejection of Joachim's Sacrifice
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Arena Chapel

This rejection so upset Joachim that, instead of returning home, he fled to the countryside and stayed with the herdsmen who tended his flocks and herds.

Giotto, St. Joachim Among the Shepherds
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua, Arena Chapel

An Angelic Message 

Giotto, Angel Announcing the Birth of Mary to St. Anne
Italian, 1304-1308
Padua, Arena Chapel
While Joachim was in the country both he and Anne had almost identical angelic visions.

Giotto, St. Joachim's Dream
Italian, 1304-1308
Padua, Arena Chapel

Anonymous, Annunciation to Sts. Anne and Joachim
from Speculum humanae salvationisItalian (Bologna), 1350-1400
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 593, fol. 5

Annunciation of the Birth of Mary to St. Anne
from Fleur des victoires by Jean Mansel
French, 1450-1475
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francaise 56, fol. 6
Boccacio Boccaccino, Annunciation of the Birth of Mary
to St. Joachim
Italian, ca. 1516
Cremona, Cathedral

The angel told each of them that God had heard their prayers and that they were to become parents of a child who would be “from her infancy sacred unto our Lord, and shall be full of the Holy Ghost”1

The story appears, as early as the 14th century, in manuscripts, and in Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua, as well as in later 14th century Italian work.  Later it also appears as the left wing of the St. Anne Altarpiece (the central panel of which will be discusssed later in the novena) by the Flemish painter Quentin Massys (or Metsys) whose career straddled the 15th and 16th centuries. 

Bartolo di Fredi, Annunciation to Joachim
Italian, c. 1383
Vatican, Pinacoteca

Quentin Massys,
Annunciation to Joachim
Flemish, 1507-1508
Brussels, Musees Royaux
des Beaux-Arts, 1507-1508

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, pp. 47-54.

© M. Duffy, 2011

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this lovely and informative series of post on St Anne. I love the stories about her and Mary in the Infancy Narratives of James, so it's wonderful to see how these legends have informed European art.