By Christine Morgan
The story of how the grandmother of Jesus became an important figure in medieval Christianity.
The cult of Saint Anne is believed to have originated as early as AD 550 in Jerusalem and in the Eastern Christian Church. The cult spread slowly but surely into every European country throughout the Middle Ages, influencing art and architecture, while also challenging ideals of Christianity and even gender roles in the medieval European world. Although the image of Saint Anne had widespread popularity, she was all but forgotten by the late sixteenth century, replaced in popular iconography by her daughter, the Virgin Mary. In fact, Saint Anne was not truly a “saint” at all until 1584 when the post-Reformation Catholic Church finally canonized her.
Despite the Church’s hesitation in regard to Saint Anne, Christians across Europe and the Middle East venerated her, painted her, and prayed to her for centuries. Although she does not appear in canonical religious texts, she is named in the apocryphal book The Infancy Gospel of James, written as early as the second century. By the sixth century, a church in Jerusalem had been built in her honor, the Eastern Church declared a feast day for Saint Anne, and relics associated with her life would eventually play a part in Crusader history. Saint Anne’s role in shaping social, economic, and religious movements during the medieval period is nothing short of groundbreaking.
The medieval European world saw an unprecedented surge of women joining and even creating religious movements. While frequently slandered as “The Dark Ages,” in actuality, the medieval period was one in which wives, mothers, and widows were able to exercise agency in religious communities or convents, as well as through patronage of the arts. The Church openly supported female religious orders and built convents across Europe to meet a demand created primarily by young single women and widows. While the highest church positions were still held by men (for example, confessors), women were becoming actively involved in the practice and spread of Christianity in Europe and the Middle East. In response, it is estimated that by the late thirteenth century the Church had increased the number of female saints to a staggering twenty-five percent of the total saint body.
Artistic interpretations of Saint Anne show her as a mother to the Virgin Mary and as a grandmother to Jesus. In fact, the depictions of Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus together were so popular that the term Holy Kinship – or the extended holy family of Jesus – became common. In several painted works, the scenes included Saint Anne and the Virgin Mary’s husbands, Joachim and Joseph, as well as Saint Anne’s two other daughters (both also named Mary), who were each fathered by different men. This detail suggests that she was widowed and remarried at least twice. Additionally, this version of the Holy Kinship supports a more forgiving social disposition toward women who remarried, though not all Christians accepted this perspective.
In scenes of the full holy family, men and women are often separated and do not interact. However, the women are shown to be holding or teaching their children. These elements reflect the roles of medieval men and women, not just in the home, but also from a religious perspective where women were expected to teach and raise Christian children. By the high Middle Ages, imagery of Saint Anne began to shift. Italian artists in particular continued to depict the Holy Kinship, but Saint Anne’s appearance lost its previously soft and loving features and became far more severe. Historians and sociologists have suggested that this change is in response to the more prominent roles of women who cared for businesses and land during the absences of men at war or on crusade. The new imagery was an attempt to “correct” these social changes and re-domesticate women into the home.
The Caste of Christ
Beyond the use of Saint Anne to establish domestic and social gender roles, medieval families used Saint Anne to affirm their socio-economic beliefs as well. In the book of Matthew, both Mary and Joseph are described as descendants of King David. Furthermore, both of Mary’s parents, Saint Anne and Joachim, are also identified as descendants of King David. For many Christians, this was interpreted to mean that Jesus and, by extension, God preferred to be associated with noble lineage. Therefore, it is unsurprising to see an increase in patterns of young noblewomen and widows who chose to lead religious lives. Though convent life was certainly a way for women to escape unhappy marriages or avoid second marriages, becoming a nun in the medieval period was also a point of pride. In Benedictine nunneries, it was almost exclusively noble or bourgeois women who were accepted as nuns. Women who chose religious lives in the Benedictine order who were from lower-class backgrounds were given jobs as maids and servants to those nuns.
Saint Anne was not just an icon for women living cloistered lives, though. Men and women alike adopted Saint Anne as a patron saint of childbearing. Families turned to her to pray for the protection of their family in a world ravaged by plague and war. In the event that children died of disease or violence, families would then pray to Saint Anne to grant them more children. With her image embedded into the medieval social narrative, the Church began to reflect and interrogate Saint Anne’s popular classification as “holy.” Ultimately, the public admiration of Saint Anne and the Holy Kinship would directly force the church to consider theological beliefs based on the matrilineal genealogy of Jesus Christ; this was a discussion that would split the medieval Christian world.
A Catalyst for Theological Reform
For many Christians, the immaculate conception of Jesus was not only true, but also necessary in a religious narrative of a “perfect” being. However, for Jesus to be perfect, his mother Mary also needed to be perfect. This domino-like line of thinking ignited a discussion within the Church, which suggested that perhaps the Virgin Mary herself was the result of an immaculate conception bestowed upon Saint Anne. Although marriage and procreation were valued and honored in the medieval period, the act of sexual procreation was viewed as an extension of original sin and lust. Those who turned to the Virgin Mary for comfort and guidance suggested that her birth story also needed a remarkable element, effectively splitting Christians into three theological camps.
The first notion was that Saint Anne conceived Mary without sex, but instead through divine blessing (immaculate conception). This is still not a virginal conception because Saint Anne and Joachim had been trying unsuccessfully to have children for years (see parallels to the story of Hannah and Samuel). The second suggestion is that Mary was conceived naturally by Saint Anne and Joachim but was then cleansed by God while in the womb, which parallels stories of John the Baptist. Finally, some groups chose to believe Mary’s conception and birth were sexual in nature and included the hereditary transfer of original sin, but that the angel Gabriel cleansed Mary during the Annunciation of Jesus.
The debate of the Virgin Mary’s conception began in the West around the ninth century and continued without consensus into the fifteenth century. Immaculate conception was so controversial that it was not even declared official Catholic dogma until the nineteenth century. The lack of agreement ensured that the veneration and celebration of Saint Anne remained a localized matter that was perpetuated by art, propaganda, and traditions that helped differentiate religion from one region to the next. For example, Saint Anne’s multiple marriages were accepted in more Central European nations and rejected entirely in more traditional areas.
The Disappearance of Saint Anne
As the medieval period came to an end, the Christian church had been reformed and split several times over and was quickly approaching its largest, most polarizing split. A rise in humanist ideals that focused on the power of the individual effectively shifted the focus from saints to self. In addition, many Christians came to the realization that without her association to the Virgin Mary and Jesus, Saint Anne had little to no religious value. The late medieval/early Renaissance world gave way to a rise in both contraception and infanticide, indicating a societal shift toward the prevention of childbearing, rather than a desire for numerous miraculous pregnancies.
After centuries of theological debate, localized traditions, and socio-economic influence, Saint Anne’s popularity waned. Still, for an icon based almost entirely on public appreciation rather than substance, the role of Saint Anne in both social and religious history is remarkable. While Saint Anne had a few more moments of popularity, she is best classified as a medieval obsession and remains lovingly known as the grandmother of Christianity.
Nixon, Virginia, Mary’s Mother: Saint Anne in Late Medieval Europe (Pennsylvania State Press, 2005)
Shahar, Shulamith, The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages. 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2003)
Fukri, Stephanie Fossek, Saint Anne with the Virgin and Christ Child (MA Thesis, California State University, 2011)
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.