SAINTS & ARTS: St. Anne is the patron saint of women in childbirth, the patron saint of women praying for the birth of a child and the patron saint of grandmothers.
Many Catholics in their 50s and older in the Northeast—particularly French-American New England Catholics—know of the strong devotion of French Canadians to St. Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin and grandmother of Jesus Christ. Not long ago, parishes in this area often organized a pilgrimage to Quebec’s three great shrines: St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montréal, Our Lady of the Cape in Cap-de-la-Madeleine, and St. Anne’s Shrine in late July Quebec City. (Pope Francis will visit the shrine on July 28, but Canada’s strict COVID-19 border protocols are likely to keep many Americans away.)
Jesus was “true God and true man,” as the Council of Chalcedon taught. As a real man, he had a history, a family, a genealogy. The biblical genealogies (Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:21-38) indicate his incorporation by adoption into the line of Joseph and thus into the line of David from whom the promised Messiah was to come (2 :14-16) . As for the maternal line, it is clear that he is the son of Mary. Maternal lineage (at least in a pre-IVF/pre-surrogacy world) was secure, which is why Jewish identity descends matrilineally.
And Mary had a mother.
What we know about Saint Anne, the mother of Mary, comes from tradition, particularly from a number of apocryphal works of the New Testament, particularly the Proto-Gospel of James. After that Anne and her husband Joachim – like Elisabeth and Zechariah later – were older and childless. Legend has it that Joachim went to the temple to offer a sacrifice but was denied entry because of the family’s sterility. Both Anne and Joachim both supplicated to God and later met at the Golden Gate of the Temple to pray together. Anne promised that she would dedicate the child to the service of the Lord. The legend then states that Mary was conceived.
These apocryphal traditions were eventually taken up by Jacob de Voragine’s Middle Ages Golden Legend. Although the cult of St. Anne existed before de Voragine, the impetus of this work spread it, particularly in France. Their feast is found for the first time around 1291 in Douai, was accepted in England in 1378, but did not reach the universal church until 1584.
So we know very little about the grandparents of Jesus, but tradition has tried to fill in the space. And for those children who were blessed by the presence of a grandmother in their lives (like I was), wouldn’t we have hoped the same for Jesus?
St. Anne’s place in art history begins in the Middle Ages, and my usual source on Christian iconography mentions three main themes in Anne art: depictions of her with Joachim at the Golden Gate of the Temple, Anne as a parent teaching Mary to read (both are pious Jews, and pious Jews are people of the book), and Anna Selbdrit Art. Today’s artwork will illustrate the latter.
Anna Selbdrit Art peaked during a 40-year period in northern Europe, from about 1480-1520. The term is German and means “Anna herself is three” or, as my commenter puts it, “And Anna makes three”. Anna Selbdrit Art typically depicted three people: Anna, Mary and Jesus – grandmother, mother and son/grandson.
The statue I chose to illustrate the Anna Selbdrit Style comes from the Cathedral Museum of Santiago, Spain. Some places on the internet claim that this work is from the 17th century, but the museum itself doesn’t claim that. The museum attributes the work to Nicholas de Chanterenne or Chantereine (c. 1485-1551), a French sculptor who spent his artistic life in the Iberian Peninsula. The museum currently dates this work to “about 1500.” We know that de Chanterenne had contracts for sculpture in Santiago de Compostella from 1511-16.
Elizabeth, gathering them all like a throne, is a middle-aged woman. Mary, her daughter, is more youthful. She holds her child, Jesus. Noble colors – royal red and gold – dominate the work. The work is polychrome limestone.
The age question is important because in this work the age of each character is relatively accurate. In many of the artworks in which Anna is involved, she has aged, either given tradition that she is old and childless, or to emphasize her parenthood to Mary and grandparenthood to Jesus, in which Mary herself is often depicted almost as a child. This is a not uncommon approach for very late Gothic-influenced art, in which regular chronology is subordinated to other themes, in this case parental relationships.
St Anne is often the patron saint of working women, although St Gianna Molla is a more contemporary example. Like St. Elizabeth, St. Anne is a fitting patron saint for women today suffering from infertility and praying for the gift of a child, a phenomenon that is on the rise in many parts of the West. After all, she is the patron saint of grandmothers, an important part of the “extended family” that Pope Francis honored last year in his First World Day message for grandparents and the elderly.