St. Anne, Pray For Us

SAINTS & ART: St. Anne is the patroness of women in labor, the patroness for women praying for the gift of a child and the patron saint of grandmothers.

“St. Anne with Mary and Jesus,” 17th century; Cathedral Museum, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
“St. Anne with Mary and Jesus,” 17th century; Cathedral Museum, Santiago de Compostela, Spain (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Many 50-something or plus Catholics from the Northeast — especially Franco-American Catholics from New England — know of the strong devotion to St. Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin and grandmother of Jesus Christ, among French Canadians. Not even that long ago, parishes in that area would often organize a late July pilgrimage to Québec’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 Québec City. (Pope Francis will visit the Shrine on July 28, but Canada’s rigid COVID-19 border protocols will likely keep many Americans out.)

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) point to his incorporation by adoption into the lineage of Joseph and, thereby, the lineage of David, from whom the promised Messiah was to come (2 Samuel 7:14-16). As for the maternal line, it’s clear that he is the Son of Mary. Maternal lineage (at least in a pre-in vitro fertilization/pre-surrogacy world) was certain, which is why Jewish identity descends matrilineally.

And Mary had a mother.

What we know of St. Anne, Mary’s mother, comes from Tradition, particularly a number of apocryphal New Testament works, especially the Protoevangelium of James. According to those works, Anne and her husband Joachim were — like Elizabeth and Zechariah later — older and childless. Legend says that Joachim went to the Temple to offer a sacrifice but was denied admission because of the family’s sterility. Both Anne and Joachim each pleaded to God and later met at the Golden Gate of the Temple to pray together, Anne promising she would dedicate the child to the Lord’ service. Legend then says that Mary was conceived.

These apocryphal traditions were eventually picked up by Jacob de Voragine’s medieval Golden Legend. The cult of St. Anne did exist prior to de Voragine, but the impetus of that work spread it, especially in France. Her feast is first found around 1291 in Douai, was adopted in England in 1378, but only came to the universal Church in 1584.

So we know very little about Jesus’s grandparents but Tradition has tried to fill in the space. And, for those children who have been blessed by the presence of a grandmother in their lives (as I was), would we not have hoped the same for Jesus?

St. Anne’s place in art history takes off in the Middle Ages, and my usual source on Christian iconography mentions three major themes in Anne art: depictions of her with Joachim at the Temple’s Golden Gate, Anne as parent teaching Mary to read (both are pious Jews, and pious Jews are People of the Book), and Anna Selbdritt art. Today’s artwork will illustrate the last.

Anna Selbdritt art had its apogee during a 40-year period in northern Europe, from about 1480-1520. The term is German, meaning “Anna herself is three” or, as my commentator puts it, “And Anna makes three.” Anna Selbdritt art typically depicted three persons: Anna, Mary and Jesus — Grandmother, Mother and Son/Grandson. 

The statue I’ve chosen to illustrate the Anna Selbdritt style comes from the Cathedral Museum of Santiago, Spain. In some places on the internet, it’s claimed this work is from the 17th century, but the Museum itself does not claim that. The Museum attributes the work to Nicholas de Chanterenne or Chantereine (c. 1485-1551), a French sculptor who spent his artistic life on the Iberian Peninsula. The Museum currently dates this work to “circa 1500.” We know de Chanterenne had contracts for sculptures in Santiago de Compostella from 1511-16. 

Elizabeth, who gathers 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 ages of the respective characters are relatively accurate. In many works of art involving Anna, she is either aged, given the tradition of her being aged and childless or to accentuate her parenthood of Mary and grandparenthood of Jesus, in which Mary is often rendered almost as a child herself. That is a not-unusual approach for very late Gothic-influenced art, where regular chronology is subordinated to other themes, in this case, parental relationships.

St. Anne is often the patron of women in labor, though St. Gianna Molla is a more contemporary example. Like St. Elizabeth, St. Anne is a fitting patroness for women today suffering from infertility and praying for the gift of a child, a phenomenon on the rise in many quarters of the West. Finally, she is the patron saint of grandmothers, an important part of the “extended families” whom Pope Francis honored last year in his message for the First World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly.