July 26 — Anne, Mother of Mary, Grandmother of Jesus

Today is the Commemoration of Anne, the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus. That Mary had a mother and Jesus had a grandmother there can be no doubt—we all have them—but the New Testament authors do not name Anne (or her husband, Joachim) or give us a single detail about her in the stories of Jesus’ conception, birth, and upbringing.

That there was an  Anne is what some call ‘a venerable tradition’ and others disdain as a pious lie, depending on the extent to which one honors and enjoys the religious imaginations of the ancestors and is not reflexively dismissive of stories. You know where I come down on this one.

Anne (along with Joachim) first appears in the Protoevangelium of James, c. 150 [?], a much-loved book in the ancient Eastern Church (in the West, not so much), and later in other non-canonical writings. Some people say that her story—an older woman conceiving later in life, bearing a famous child—was modeled after the story of Hannah (Anne), the mother of Samuel. Whatever the origins and literary models of her story, she soon became a fan favorite.

Devotion to Anne can be documented in the East from the mid-6th century; but if by that time the Byzantine emperor Justinian is busy constructing a great church in her honor, we can be sure that it had been gaining steam for a good while before that. In the West, there is no extant representation of Anne until the 8th century (a nice fresco in Rome), and not much fervent devotion until the 13th; but it took off after her story was included in a popular collection of saints lives (The Golden Legend, Jacobus de Voraigne), and Anne swiftly became one of the most beloved saints of the Latin Church.

The medieval imagination provided Mary’s parents with parents too—Stollanus and Emerentia; and with many marriage stories, including one in which Anne is married and widowed a three times, giving birth in successive unions to Anne (by Joachim); to Mary (by a fellow named Cleophas), who becomes the wife of Alphaeus and mother of the apostles James the Lesser, Simon and Judas, and of Joseph, called the Just; and Maria Salomae (by  Salomas) who became the wife of Zebedaeus and mother of the apostles John and James the Greater. The way her story was developing, she might eventually have ended up grandmothering the entire corps of apostles, and the further 72 as well. 

Muslims also venerate Anne (Hannah), the grandmother of the much-venerated prophet, Isa, whom we know as Jesus. The Qur’an does not name her (only her father and husband get names—Faqud and Imram, respectively), but subsequent teachers tell a poignant  story about her conception of Maryam (Mary): Hannah has trouble conceiving and is about to give up when she sees a mother bird feeding hatchlings. The maternal desire grows strong again and she and her husband try one more time. You know the result.

The Qur’an recounts that before conceiving, Hannah had promised Allah that, like the Biblical Hannah, she would dedicate her son to him (she was sure it would be a boy). She is surprised when a girl appears, and maybe a little afraid to present the little Maryam to God, but in mystical insight she decides that the baby girl is a true gift of God. The Qur’an is at pains to show that Allah is extremely pleased with the birth of this girl child and has great plans for her.

After she dies, Anne endured the fate of many great saints in the medieval church, traveling more in death than she ever had in life. Her relics are said to have been taken to Constantinople in 710. They remained there, in Hagia Sophia, until 1331, when the city was conquered and her relics were taken to Europe for safekeeping—and dispersal. Or if you like you can follow the tradition that Lazarus, Jesus’ moldy friend, took her body to France and buried her there. In Douai, you can venerate her foot (not sure if it is her left or right). Her head resided in Mainz in Germany for a while, before it was stolen by pious thieves from Duren in the Rhineland. I could go on, but these are unedifying details, so no more of this.

One of the lovely traditions of iconography associated with Anne is called the Metterza (Italy), Anna selbdritt (Germany) or Anna te Drieen (Low Countries). Taken together, these terms describe depictions of ‘the three generations’—Anne, Mary and Jesus; or as one author put it, these are images in which “Granny makes three.” {See such a depiction by Albrecht Düerer, below.) 

Another important iconographic tradition shows Anne teaching Mary to read. Anne was a good teacher, it seems, and Mary learned well. She was still reading as a young woman: in a great deal of iconography of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel enters to find Mary with a book (probably scripture) open on her lap. The Word arrives as words are pondered.

Now, if you are a Protestant and not much inclined to saints, you have good reason to like this one, for it could be said that St. Anne made the Reformation possible. When, caught in the midst of a terrible lightning storm, a terrified young Martin Luther cried out to heaven to be spared, promising to become a monk if he lived, it was to St. Anne that he prayed. Apparently, she heard him. Luther credited his safety to her intercession. He kept his vow and entered the Augustinian friary at Erfut on July 17, 1505.  The rest is history.

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