Monday, July 7


Family Albums of the Saints

Some friends of mine and I were chatting this weekend and the subject of the Holy Kinship came up, those wonderful family-portrait altarpieces showing the immensely complex shape of the extended Holy Family--Mary Salome, Mary Cleophas, James and John, and all the rest. At the National Gallery in Washington, there's a large medieval wood-carving depicting this, with all the women in the foreground, babies playing round their feet, and a oddly despondent set of husbands in the back row, clearly putting the lie to the whole "male-dominated Church" business; as well as a delightful set showing the Salomes and the Cleophases split into two separate family group portraits.

These last two are quite wonderfully charming, showing a kindergarten-aged St. John studiously writing his gospel, as well as, in the other panel, a Buster Brown-wearing baby James Lesser fighting off the family dog with a medieval whirligig. It's hard not to love the Middle Ages after seeing such simultaneously deeply reverent, loving, charming, and even slightly silly images, and makes us wish we were able to balance realism and symbolism, imagination and tradition in our own religious art.

Which reminds me. The story goes that the confusing number of Maries in the New Testament--Mary Salome, Mary Cleophas, and Our Lady--in part stems from a very small-t tradition which has the ever-practical St. Anne marrying three times, which would explain her subsequent flair as a celestial matchmaker (i.e., St. Anne, St. Anne, find me a man; perhaps because nothing rhymes with 'girl,' guys are just on their own here):
Anna solet dici tres concepisse Marias,
Quas genuere viri Joachim, Cleophas, Salomeque.
Has duxere viri Joseph, Alpheus, Zebedeus.
Prima parit Christum, Jacobum secunda minorem,
Et Joseph justum peperit cum Simone Judam,
Tertia majorem Jacobum volucremque Johannem.

Anna is usually said to have conceived three Marys,
Whom her husbands Joachim, Cleophas, and Salome begot.
These [Marys] the men Joseph, Alpheus, and Zebedee took in marriage.
The first bore Christ; the second bore James the Less,
Joseph the Just, with Simon and Jude;
The third, James the Greater and the winged John.

~Jacobus de Voragine, Golden Legend (who else?), ch. 131.
Considering Our Lady was born when St. Anne was effectively barren, one must assume she was the child of her old age, so it is perhaps less startling. I used to find this old legend a bit harder to swallow, since three sisters all named Mary seems just a bit too good to be true.

Then it occurred to me. A whole family of daughters all named Mary? There's a very simple explanation. Of course, when you think about it, the answer's obvious--St. Anne must have just been a good Irish Catholic!

(More, serious, info on the paintings here and here, the sculpture here, and on the concept of the Holy Kinship here.)

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