|Saint Anne, Mother of the
Virgin Mary: The Iconography
Mary's parents are not in scripture, but they are named as Anne and Joachim in the second-century Protevangelium of James, the principal source of the Golden Legend's account of Mary's nativity (html or pdf).
As the story goes, St. Anne and St. Joachim went 20 years without having children. St. Joachim was refused entrance to the Temple and took his sheep into the hills with a heavy heart. But then an angel announced to the two that their prayers for a child were answered and that they should meet at the Golden Gate of the Temple. Mary was born nine months later.
Until the late medieval period, St. Anne is seen mostly in narrative images based on this story, most famously in Giotto's Arena Chapel frescoes (example). Outside of complete cycles like Giotto's, the two episodes most commonly painted are the Golden Gate and the Birth of Mary. The latter is treated at this page on the web site. The typical Golden Gate image shows Anne and Joachim embracing or just about to embrace. In some images the embrace is encouraged by an angel who places his hands on their heads (example).
Probably the richest period for St. Anne images was between about 1480 and 1520 in northern Europe. Popular devotion to St. Anne gave rise to a new subject matter known as Anna Selbdritt -- literally "Anne herself the third," or if you will "Granny makes three." The saint is shown as a vigorously mature adult with the Christ Child and a Mary who is usually quite young.
During this period, several ways of arranging the figures developed. Sometimes they are disposed vertically, as we see above left, in a pattern resembling that of the Throne of Wisdom. A statue from Mechelen seems influenced by the Throne of Wisdom type in having the child on Mary's lap holding a book, though both Jesus and Mary perch sideways on St. Anne's right arm. Other images have Anne holding her daughter and grandson in each of her two arms, as in the Riemenschneider sculpture in Würzburg.
A third pattern seats St. Anne and Mary side-by-side with Jesus between them or on a lap. This allows for the addition of secondary figures behind the two women. For example, the Anna Selbdritt sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum places St. Anne's mother St. Emerentia behind the seated women. Or the image may be filled with all or some of St. Anne's "Holy Kinship" (example), in which the Golden Legend included her three husbands, three daughters named Mary, three sons-in-law, niece Elizabeth, grandnephew John the Baptist, and seven grandchildren, including five apostles and one Messiah!
As Virginia Nixon shows in her monograph on St. Anne images, the years after 1520 were less kind to Anne. Her represented age grew older, and she was moved back into the shadows, as in Ribera's Holy Family with Saints Anne and Catherine.
Nixon's study focused on northern Europe, but Anna Selbdritts continued to be created in Spain through the 16th century and the subject was exported to Mexico.
The subject of St. Anne's teaching Mary to read also developed in the Middle Ages, as we see in a 15th-century window in the chancel of All Saints North Street, York, England. This tradition has continued to be popular in modern times, for example in Ede Bohacs' Szent Anna, 1913. One unusual variation has St. Anne teaching an adult Mary while St. Joseph stands by.
Feast day: July 26
Above left, "Saint Anne" - Museum of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Swabian miniature, ca. 1490
Anne teaching Mary, 1335 altar frontal
Combination of Anna Selbdritt and Teaching Mary
Statue of Anne teaching Mary, 1460-70
Tapestry of the Virgin and Child with Anne and Emerentia, ca. 1500
Golden Legend #131