Thursday, July 21, 2011

Glorious Saint Anne – Iconography of Saint Anne, Day 5 – Saint Anne as Teacher

Claus de Werve, Virgin and Child
French (Burgundy), ca. 1415-1417
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of the most familiar images of Saint Anne is as Mary's teacher.  In spite of writings such as the Golden Legend and the tradition based on them, i.e., that Mary spent the years between age 3 and puberty in the temple, there is an equally strong tradition that she spent those years at home, under the instruction of her mother.

From at least the 14th century artists have shown Saint Anne as the teacher of her daughter. That it should be thought necessary that Mary should be literate is interesting in itself. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus read from the Book of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:16-17). Therefore, it is apparently assumed that Mary can read also. Indeed, she is frequently pictured as teaching the Infant Jesus to read in many works of medieval arts, such as a lovely early 15th-century statue in the Metropolitan Museum collection. If Mary can read, then it is a logical assumption that she was taught to read by her own mother, Saint Anne.

So far, the earliest images of Saint Anne as teacher appear to come from 14th-England. Due to the destruction of most English religious art during the Reformation and the later Republican period, the surviving images are few and frequently in bad shape. However, a number of wall paintings have emerged from the layers of whitewash and plaster that covered them and there are occasional survivals elsewhere. For example, the Cluny Museum in Paris owns a painted wooden altar frontal from the parish church of Thetford in Suffolk that is dated to about 1335.

Anonymous, Education of the Virgin
English, c. 1335
Paris, Musee Cluny, Musée nationale du moyen age

Through the medium of illuminated manuscripts the image of Saint Anne as teacher spread to the Continent. It is found in manuscripts from France and Spain and from the Low Countries, as well as in sculpture. 

Master of the Breviary of John the Fearless, Egerton Master and others, Education of the Virgin
from Breviary of John the Fearless and  Margaret of Bavaria
French (Paris), ca. 1410-1419
London, British Library
MS Harley 2897, fol. 340v

Education of the Virgin
Spanish, 15th century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jean Bourdichon, Education of the Virgin
from Prayer Book of Anne of Brittany
France(Tours), 1492-1495
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 50, fol. 13r
Jean Poyer, Education of the Virgin
from Hours of Henry VIII
France(Tours), ca. 1500
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS H 8, fol 186v

In panel and oil paintings it seems to appear later. Among the most important images are:

Peter Paul Rubens Education of the Virgin of 1625-1626 influenced many later artists (not included here). On a classically balustraded terrace a charming Mary looks up as if interrupted in her lessons by the appearance of the viewer. Joachim looks on from the left and cherubs circle overhead, bearing a crown of roses.
Peter Paul Rubens, Education of the Virgin
Flemish, 1625-1626
Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts

Georges de la Tour set the scene between Anne and Mary by candlelight in order to play over the smooth surfaces of the figures and their clothing. The resulting image has a kind of grand solemnity.

Georges de La Tour, Education of the Virgin
French, ca. 1650
New York, Frick Collection

Jean Jouvenet interpreted the event in a pious scene in which the middle-aged Anne instructs a prayerful Mary, watched over by Joachim and surrounded by other young women who are engaged in needlework, while angels pay close attention.
Jean Jouvenet, Education of the Virgin
French, 1700
Florence, Galleria degli Ufizzi

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo interweaves the earthly scene of education into a heavenly one as multiple angels float in on clouds.
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Education of the Virgin
Italian, 1732
Venice, Church of Santa Maria della Consolazione

Near the end of the 18th century, Jean-Honore Fragonard presented a sweetly peaceful earthly scene in which Mary snuggles up to her mother, as she turns from her book.

Jean-Honore Fragonard, Education of the Virgin
French, 1775
Amiens, Musée de Picardie

There is also a less well-known tradition in painting of Mary’s education consisting, not in learning to read, but in learning to work with the needle or the shuttle. The support for this comes from a portion of the Protoevangelion of James 1 in which Mary is chosen to participate in weaving a new veil for the sanctuary of the temple.

In this tradition St. Anne is also the teacher. However, the number of works appears to be much fewer than the more frequently represented education in reading.

In this fragment of fresco attributed to the Master of the Bambino Vispo, Saint Anne appears to be teaching Mary about sewing.

Master of the Bambino Vispo, Educaiton of the Virgin
Italian, 1420s
Florance, Church of Santa Croce

The wing of a diptych by Lucas Cranach showing Anne instructing Mary in weaving. Mary is seated at Anne’s feet working on a small loom.
Lucas Cranach, Education of the Virgin
German, 1510-1512 (detail)
Dessau, Althältisches Gemäldegalerie

A painting by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti, shows a domestic scene in which a very Victorian Mary sits in a veranda with her mother, who is instructing her in embroidery, while Saint Joachim trims some vines.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Girlhood of Mary
English, 1848-1849
London, Tate Gallery

The scene is so ordinary in appearance that Rosetti added some clues to assist us in interpreting it correctly. He has added an attendant angel, a pot of lilies, martyr’s palms, and a dove in a mandorla that is obviously a reference to the Holy Spirit.

An alternate view of this period of Mary's childhood is given by the 17th-century Spanish painter, Francisco de Zurbaran.  Here Mary appears to work alone at her needlework in a prayerful attitude.  But, perhaps we are meant to assume the unseen presence of her mother, standing beside us as we observe the holy child at work and prayer.

Francisco de Zurbaran, The Young Virgin
Spanish, ca. 1632-1633
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
1. Protoevangelion of James. Translated by Alexander Walker. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. @

© M. Duffy, 2011/2012

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