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Legends of the Madonna - Joachim and Anna

( Originally Published 1895 )



THE LEGEND OF JOACHIM AND ANNA

Ital. La Leggenda di Sant Anna Madre della Gloriosa Vergine

Maria, e di San Gioacchino.

OF the sources whence are derived the popular legends of the life of the Virgin Mary, which, mixed up with the few notices in Scripture, formed one continuous narrative, authorized by the priesthood, and accepted and believed in by the people, I have spoken at length in the Introduction. We have now to consider more particularly the scenes and characters associated with her history ; to show how the artists of the middle ages, under the guidance and by the authority of the Church, treated in detail these favorite themes in ecclesiastical decoration.

In early Art, that is, up to the end of the fifteenth century, Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Virgin, never appear except in the series of subjects from her life. In the devotional groups and altar-pieces they are omitted. St. Bernard, the great theological authority of those times, objects to the invocation of any saints who had lived before the birth of Christ, consequently to their introduction into ecclesiastical edifices in any other light than as historical personages. Hence, perhaps, there were scruples relative to the representations of St. Anna, which, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, placed the artists under certain restrictions.

Under the name of Anna, the Church has honored, from remote times, the memory of the mother of the Virgin. The Hebrew name, signifying Grace, or the Gracious, and all the conditions concerning her, came to us from the East, where she was so early venerated as a saint that a church was dedicated to her by the Emperor Justinian in 550. Several other churches were subsequently dedicated to her in Constantinople during the sixth and seventh centuries, and her remains are said to have been deposited there in 710. In the West, she first became known in the reign of Charlemagne ; and the Greek apocryphal gospels, or at least stories and extracts from them, began to be circulated about the same period. From these are derived the historic scenes and legendary subjects relating to Joachim and Anna which appear in early Art. It was about 1500; in the beginning of the sixteenth century, that the increasing veneration for the Virgin Mary gave to her parents, more especially to St. Anna, increased celebrity as patron saints ; and they became, thenceforward, more frequent characters in the sacred group. The feast of St. Anna was already general and popular throughout Europe long before it was rendered obligatory in 1584.1 The growing enthusiasm for the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception gave, of course, additional splendor and importance to her character. Still, it is only in later times that we find the effigy of St. Anna separated from that of the Virgin. There is a curious picture by Cesi, in the Bologna Gallery, in which St. Anna kneels before a vision of her daughter before she is born — the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. A fine model of a bearded man was now sometimes converted into a St. Joachim reading or meditating, instead of a St. Peter or a St. Jerome, as heretofore. In the Munich Gallery are two fine, ancient-looking figures of St. Joachim the father and St. Joseph the husband of the Virgin, standing together; but all these, as separate representations, are very uncommon ; and of those which exhibit St. Anna devotionally, as enthroned with the Virgin and Child, I have already spoken. Like St. Elizabeth, she should be an elderly, but not a very old woman. Joachim, in such pictures, never appears but as an attendant saint, and then very rarely ; always very old, and sometimes in the dress of a priest, which, however, is a mistake on the part of the artist.

A complete series of the history of the Blessed Virgin, as imaged forth by the . early artists, always begins with the legend of Joachim and Anna, which is thus related.

" There was a man of Nazareth, whose name was Joachim, and he had for his wife a woman of Bethlehem, whose name was Anna, and both were of the royal race of David. Their lives were pure and righteous, and they served the Lord with singleness of heart. And, being rich, they divided their sub-stance into three portions, one for the service of the temple, one for the poor and the strangers, and the third for their house-hold. On a certain feast-day, Joachim brought double offerings to the Lord according to his custom, for he said, ' Out of my superfluity will I give for the whole people, that I may find favor in the sight of the Lord, and forgiveness for my sins.' And when the children of Israel brought their gifts, Joachim also brought his ; hut the high priest Issachar stood over against him and opposed him, saying, ' It is not lawful for thee to bring thine offering, seeing that thou hast not begot issue in Israel.' And Joachim was exceeding sorrowful, and went down to his house ; and he searched through all the registers of the twelve tribes to discover if he alone had been childless in Israel. And he found that all the righteous men, and the patriarchs who had lived before him, had been the fathers of sons and daughters. And he called to mind his father Abraham, to whom in his old age had been granted a son, even Isaac.

" And Joachim was more and more sorrowful : and he would not be seen by his wife, hut avoided her, and went away into the pastures where were the shepherds and the sheep-cotes. And he built himself a hut, and fasted forty days and forty nights ; for he said, ' -Until the Lord God look upon me mercifully, prayer shall be my meat and my drink.'

"But his wife Anna remained lonely in her house, and mourned with a twofold sorrow, for her widowhood and for her barrenness.

"Then drew near the last day of the feast of the Lord; and Judith her handmaid said to Anna, ' How long wilt thou thus afflict thy soul ? Behold, the feast of the Lord is come, and it is not lawful for thee thus to mourn. Take this silken fillet, which was bestowed on me by one of high degree whom I formerly served, and bind it round thy head, for it is not fit that I who am thy handmaid should wear it, but it is fitting for thee, whose brow is as the brow of a crowned queen.' And Anna replied, ' Begone! such things are not for me, for the Lord has humbled me. As for this fillet, some wicked person hath given it to thee ; and art thou come to make me a partaker in thy sin?' And Judith, her maid answered, ' What evil shall I wish thee since thou wilt not hearken to my voice ? for worse I cannot wish thee than that with which the Lord hath afflicted thee, seeing that he hath shut up thy womb, that thou shouldst not be a mother in Israel.'

" And Anna, hearing these words, was sorely troubled. And she laid aside her mourning garments, and she adorned her head, and put on her bridal attire ; and at the ninth hour she went forth into her garden, and sat down under a laurel-tree and prayed earnestly. And looking up to heaven she saw within the laurel bush a sparrow's nest; and mourning within herself, she said, ' Alas ! and woe is me ! who hath be-gotten me? who bath brought me forth? that I should be accursed in the sight of Israel and scorned and shamed before my people, and cast out of the temple of the Lord ! Woe is me ! to what shall I be likened ? I cannot be likened to the fowls of heaven, for the fowls of heaven are fruitful in thy sight, O Lord ! Woe is me ! to what shall I be likened ? Not to the unreasoning beasts of the earth, for they are fruitful in thy sight, 0 Lord ! Woe is me ! to what shall I be likened ? Not to these waters, for they are fruitful in thy sight, O Lord ! Woe is me! to what shall I be likened? Not unto the earth, for the earth bringeth forth her fruit in due season, and praiseth thee, O Lord ! '

" And behold, an angel of the Lord stood by her and said, ' Anna, thy prayer is heard ; thou shalt bring forth, and thy child shall be blessed throughout the whole world.' And Anna said, ' As the Lord liveth, whatever I shall bring forth, be it a man-child or a maid, I will present it an offering to the Lord.' And behold, another angel came and said to her, ' See, thy husband Joachim is coming with his shepherds; ' for an angel had spoken to him also, and had comforted him with promises. And Anna went forth to meet her husband, and Joachim came from the pasture with his herds, and they met at the golden gate; and Anna ran and embraced her husband, and hung upon his neck, saying, ' Now know I that the Lord hath blessed me. I who was a widow am no longer a widow ; I who was barren shall become a joyful mother.'

" And they returned home together.

"Arid when her time was come, Anna brought forth a daughter, and she said, ' This day my soul magnifieth the Lord.' And she laid herself down on her bed ; and she called the name of her child Mary, which in the Hebrew is Miriam."

With the scenes of this beautiful pastoral begins the life of the Virgin.

1. We have first Joachim rejected from the temple. He stands on the steps before the altar holding a lamb, and the high priest opposite to him with arm upraised appears to refuse his offering. Such is the usual motif ; but the incident has been variously treated — in the earlier and ruder examples, with a ludicrous want of dignity ; for Joachim is almost tumbling down the steps of the temple to avoid the box on the ear which Issachar the priest is in the act of bestowing in a most energetic fashion. On the other hand, the group by Taddeo Gaddi (Florence, Baroncelli chapel, S. Croce), though so early in date, has not since been excelled, either in the grace or the dramatic significance of the treatment. Joachim turns away, with his lamb in his arms, repulsed, but gently, by the priest. To the right are three personages who bring offerings ; one of them, prostrate on his knees, yet looks up at Joachim with a sneering expression — a fine representation of the pharisaical piety of one of the elect, rejoicing in the humiliation of a brother. On the other side are three persons who appear to be commenting on the scene. In the more elaborate composition by Ghirlandajo (Florence, S. Maria Novella) there is a grand view into the interior of the temple, with arches richly sculptured. Joachim is thrust forth by one of the attendants, while in the background the high priest accepts the offering of a more favored votary. On each side are groups looking on, who express the contempt and hatred they feel for one who, not having children, presumes to approach the altar. All these, according to the custom of Ghirlandajo, are portraits of distinguished persons. The first figure on the right represents the painter Baldovinetti ; next to him, with his hand on his side, Ghirlandajo himself ; the third, with long black hair, is Bastiano Mainardi, who painted the Assumption in the Baroncelli chapel in the Santa Croce ; and the fourth, turning his back, is David Ghirlandajo. These real personages are so managed that, while they are not them-selves actors, they do not interfere with the main action, but rather embellish and illustrate it, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. Every single figure in this fine fresco is a study for manly character, dignified attitude, and easy grand drapery.

In the same scene by Albert Dürer, in the set of woodcuts of the Life of the Virgin, the high priest, standing behind a table, rejects the offering of the lamb, and his attendant pushes away the doves. Joachim makes a gesture of despair, and several persons who bring offerings look at him with disdain or with sympathy.

The same scene by Luini (Milan, Brera) is conceived with much pathetic as well as dramatic effect. But as I have said enough to render the subject easily recognized, we proceed.

2. " Joachim herding his sheep on the mountain, and surrounded by his shepherds, receives the message of the angel." This subject may so nearly resemble the Annunciation to the Shepherds in St. Luke's Gospel that we must be careful to distinguish them, as, indeed, the best of the old painters have done with great taste and feeling.

In the fresco by Taddeo Gaddi (in the Baroncelli chapel) Joachim is seated on a rocky mountain, at the base of which his sheep are feeding, and turns round to listen to the voice of the angel. In the fresco by Giotto in the Arena at Padua the treatment is nearly the same. In the series by Luini a stream runs down the centre of the picture : on one side is Joachim listening to the angel ; on the other, Anna is walking in her garden. This incident is omitted by Ghirlandajo. In Albert Dürer's composition Joachim is seen in the foreground kneeling, and looking up at an angel, who holds out in both hands a sort of parchment roll looking like a diploma with seals appended, and which we may suppose to contain the message from on high (if it be not rather the emblem of the sealed hook, so often introduced, particularly by the German masters). A companion of Joachim also looks up with amazement, and farther in the distance are sheep and shepherds.

The Annunciation to St. Anna may be easily mistaken for the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary. We must therefore be careful to discriminate, by an attention to the accessories. Didron observes that in Western Art the Annunciation to St. Anna usually takes place in a chamber. In the East it takes place in a garden, because there " on vit peu dans les maisons et beaucoup en plein air ; " but, according to the legend, the locality ought to be a garden, and under a laurel-tree, which is not always attended to.

3. The altercation between St. Anna and her maid Judith I have never met with but once, in the series by Luini (Milan, Brera), where the disconsolate figure and expression of St. Anna are given with infinite grace and sentiment.

4. "The meeting of Joachim and Anna before the golden gate." This is one of the most important subjects. It has been treated by the very early artists with much naiveté, and in the later examples with infinite beauty and sentiment ; and, which is curious, it has been idealized into a devotional subject, and treated apart. The action is in itself extremely simple. The husband and wife affectionately and joyfully embrace each other. In the background is seen a gate, richly ornamented. Groups of spectators and attendants are sometimes, not always, introduced.

In the composition of Albert Dürer [series, "Life of the Virgin "] nothing can be more homely, hearty, and conjugal. A burly fat man, who looks on with a sort of wondering amusement in his face, appears to be a true and animated transcript from nature, as true as Ghirlandajo's attendant figures — but how different what a contrast between the Florentine citizen and the German burgher ? In the simpler composition by Taddeo Gaddi, St. Anna is attended by three women, among whom the maid Judith is conspicuous, and behind Joachim is one of his shepherds. In two compartments of a small altar-piece (which probably represented in the centre the Nativity of the Virgin) I found on one side the story of St. Joachim, on the other the story of St. Anna. (Collection of Lord Northwick.)

The Franciscans, those enthusiastic defenders of the Immaculate Conception, were the authors of a fantastic idea, that the birth of the Virgin was not only immaculate, but altogether miraculous, and that she owed her being to the joyful kiss which Joachim gave his wife when they met at the gate. Of course the Church gave no countenance to this strange poetical fiction, but it certainly modified some of the representations : for example, there is a picture by Vittore Carpaccio [in the Venice Academy], wherein St. Joachim and Anna tenderly embrace. On one side stands St. Louis of Toulouse as bishop ; on the other St. Ursula with her standard, whose presence turns the incident into a religious mystery. In another picture, painted by Ridolfo Ghirlandajo, we have a still more singular and altogether mystical treatment. In the centre St. Joachim and St. Anna embrace ; behind St. Joachim stands St. Joseph with his lily wand and a book ; behind St. Anna, the Virgin Mary (thus represented as existing before she was born), and beyond her St. Laurence ; in the corner is seen the head of the votary, a Servite monk ; above all, the Padre Eterno holds an open book with the Alpha and Omega. This singular picture was dedicated and placed over the high altar of the Conception in the church of the Servi, who, under. the title of Serviti di Maria,, were dedicated to the especial service of the Virgin Mary. (Vide Legends of the Monastic Orders, p. 232.)



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