The Holy Kinship

The Virgin Mary's Extended Family
Scripture names only three relatives of the Virgin Mary: her cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth's husband Zechariah, and their son John the Baptist. But early apocryphal gospels gave Mary's parents the names "Anne" and "Joachim" and provided a back story, and over the centuries more and more members were claimed for the extended family. Some of these were imports from scripture. The two women who went to the tomb with Mary Magdalene on the morning of the resurrection (Mark 16:1), for example, were taken to be half-sisters of Mary, each by a different husband and each giving birth to some of the twelve Apostles. Matthan, the grandfather of St. Joseph in Matthew 1:15-16, was said to be the ancestor of the whole kinship.

There were already images of what came to be called the "Holy Kinship" in the 12th century (example), and it was further popularized when the Golden Legend included it in the chapter on Mary's birth. It was especially popular in Germany. A splendid 14th-century window at Regensburg Cathedral presents it in detail, and in the 16th century Germany saw an effusion of paintings and sculptures on the subject. They are not hard to distinguish from other images of grouped saints. For one thing, the women will be accompanied by small children – one each for Elizabeth and the Virgin, two for Mary Salome, and four for Mary's other sister, the one Mark calls "the mother of James [the Less]." The husbands, apocryphal and otherwise, are often arranged in a space separated from the women by a waist-high barrier.
This genealogy from the Acta Sanctorum's article on Mary Salome traces the family's origin from Mathan, grandfather of both the Virgin Mary and her spouse St. Joseph. At the bottom left are Salome and her husband Zebedee with their sons James the Greater and John the Evangelist. To the right are the Mary who married Alpheus and their four sons (three Apostles and "Joses or Joseph," who is mentioned in Acts 1:23).
The Golden Legend takes pains to explain why the men of the family must have belonged to both the royal line of David and the priestly line of Levi. With this in mind, one Holy Kinship image ranges them around the altar of a Gothic church.

The German vogue for Holy Kinship images extended to images of smaller subsets of the family, for example this sculpture of Mary the wife of Alpheus and their children.

Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-11-1.


The Holy Kinship, 15th century. Please see the description page for a "who's who" of the figures in the painting.



  • Golden Legend #131