Friday, July 22, 2011

Glorious Saint Anne – Iconography of Saint Anne, Day 6 – Anne, the Root of the Tree of Salvation

Masaccio, Madonna and Child with Saint Anne
Italian, 1424
Florence, Galleria degli Ufizzi

The first painted images of Saint Anne that most people encounter are two famous paintings that to the twenty-first century viewer are among the most puzzling of all the images of Saint Anne. These are the paintings of Saint Anne with the Madonna and Child by the Quattrocento artist Masaccio,  now in the Ufizzi in Florence, and by the High Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci.

The Leonardo is particularly well known and frequently reproduced. Leonardo’s image exists in two versions, a large drawing (more properly a cartoon) in the National Gallery in London (first below) and a painting in the Louvre in Paris (second below).

In these images, Jesus sits on Mary’s lap (or in the case of Paris painting has just squirmed off it), while Mary herself sits on her mother’s lap. While emphasizing the blood relationship of the group, the arrangement seems today somewhat awkward, even comical.

Leonardo da Vinci, Saint Anne Cartoon
Italian, c. 1499-1500
London, National Gallery

One sees the Madonna and Child seated on the lap of another, larger woman and wonders at its meaning. We can understand the Child sitting in His mother’s lap. But why is His mother sitting on her own mother’s lap, almost as if the three were a set of Russian nesting dolls?

Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna and Child with Saint Anne
Italian, c. 1503-1519
Paris, Musée du Louvre

The answer is found in the physical relationship of the three characters to each other for, just as Jesus is the child of Mary, she is Anne’s child. The differing sizes of the three indicate their relationship. It is a kind of visual metaphor, a representation of a kind of holy version of mitochondrial DNA. Since Jesus does not have a biological father, His descent from Anne is the source of His blood relationship with humanity. And this leads us to an interesting series of images produced during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance and to the ideas behind them.

The compositions by Masaccio and Leonardo are related to a series of depictions in sculpture and painting from northern Europe. They are known in English by the German title of Anna selbdritt images. 1  A rough English translation would be “Anne herself three times” (a fair description for the passage of the then-unknown X chromosome from mother to daughter to grandson!).

As the writer of the Golden Legend tells us:

The nativity of the blessed and glorious Virgin Mary, of the lineage of Judah and of the royal kindred of David took her original beginning. Matthew and Luke describe not the generation of Mary but of Joseph, which was far from the conception of Christ. But the custom of writing was of such ordinance that the generation of women is not showed but of the men. And verily the blessed Virgin descended of the lineage of David, and it is certain that Jesu Christ was born of this only Virgin.2  He then goes on to describe Mary’s descent from David, ending with Joachim and Anne.

These Anna selbdritt images derive from earlier medieval depictions of Mary and the Christ Child, known as the “Sedes Sapientiae” or “Seat of Wisdom” type, such as the late 11th-century sculpture from central France now in the Cloisters Collection of the Metropolitan Museum. In these images a rigidly upright figure of Mary sits on a throne-like chair, holding on her lap an equally rigid Jesus. He is the Divine Word Incarnate and the embodiment of Divine Wisdom and she is, therefore, the Seat of Wisdom.

"Sedes Sapientiae" wooden statue,
France (Auvergne), 1150-1200
New York,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters

These images themselves go back to Byzantine images of the Mother of God (Theotokos), such as the mosaic showing the Virgin and Child being venerated by Emperors Justinian I and Constantine I at Hagia Sophia.

Theotokos Venerated by Justinian I and Constantine I
Byzantine, 944
Istanbul, Hagia Sophia

The figure of Anne began to be added to the Madonna and Child during the late 13th century. Numerous examples exist in both painting and sculpture. The theme was particularly important in the Low Countries and Germany.

Virgin and Child with Saint Anne  (Anna selbdritt)
Spanish, 1270-1290
Budapest, National Museum

Anna Selbdritt Statue
German, 1307
Stralsund, Saint Nicholas Church

Anna Selbdritt Statue
German,, 1400-50
Minden, Cathedral Treasury

Masaccio’s image remains close to the medieval precursors, observing a rigidity and size order that is typical of these images. In most cases Anne is shown seated, with Mary standing beside her, but she may also hold Mary and Jesus on her lap.  Jesus may be cradled in Mary's arms or may be held by Anne.

Gerard David, Anna selbdritt
Dutch, c. 1500-1520
Washington, National Gallery of Art

Hans Leinberger, Anna Selbdritt
German, 1510-1520
Paris, Musée de Cluny, Musée national du moyen age
Anne is most frequently presented as a vigorously mature, but not old, woman; Mary is sometimes portrayed as a child, sometimes as a smaller adult woman. Jesus is portrayed as a baby or toddler in all. In most cases the figures of both Mary and Jesus are placed within the contours of the figure of Anne, either by being seated in Anne's lap or by being encompassed by her cloak, or simply by visual placement within the outline of her larger figure.

Albrecht Dürer, Madonna and Child with Saint Anne
German, 1519
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

However, some images take a different approach and depict Mary as a child herself, sometimes carried in her mother’s arms. She may either hold Jesus (now reduced to the size of a doll) or Anne may carry both separately. In the latter case Jesus is depicted as a slightly smaller child than his own Mother. 

Anna selbdritt of walnut
Belgium, 1500-1525
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Master of the Berlin Sketchbook, Anna selbdritt
German, 1525
Strasbourg, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Bartholomeus Zeitblom, Annunciation, with Anna selbdritt and Saint Anthony Abbot
German, 1474-1500
Paris, Musée du Louvre

According to the thesis proposed by Virginia Nixon these Anna selbdritt images represent a moment in theological thought and popular piety when Anne was accorded a special position among the saints. Beginning in the late 14th century and extending into the 15th century she was no longer seen as merely an intercessor, but as something more. Due to her blood relationship with Christ, she was judged to have the power, in her own right, to assist in the salvation of souls. The number of images of this type that were produced in all media is staggering. I have shown just a small number here. Although most prominent in the northern countries they are found in smaller numbers throughout the rest of Europe as well.

After about 1520 the number of these images declined as Saint Anne’s image gradually took on the characteristics by which we know it today. We will examine some of that development tomorrow.

1. For an analysis of the Anna selbdritt images in northern Europe see the book by Virginia Nixon. Mary’s Mother: Saint Anne in Late Medieval Europe, University Park, PA, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004. See also, the Ph.D. dissertation on which the book is based at

2. 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 47-54.

© M. Duffy, 2011/2012

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