Abstract: Patron saint of Brittany, whence the first French colonists hailed, St. Anne’s role as a coastal saint and maritime protectress lead these first settlers to bring her along on their boats across the Atlantic for her divine protection at sea. But, as Roman Catholicism was adopted by native populations in southern Quebec and the Maritimes (which came to be called Acadie or Acadia), the Mi’kmaq and Malecite peoples developed a form of Catholicism which shows a degree of syncretism with their own traditional belief system. St. Anne would subsequently become the patron saint of Quebec, where her most popular shrine is the 17th century Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré basilica, and for the Mi’kmaq people, she is specially venerated because of her role as a respected elder – God’s grandmother. To this day, the Roman Catholic festival of Sainte-Anne is regarded as a national holiday for the Mi’kmaq, where a week-long celebration commonly referred to as St. Anne’s Mission is held on Chapel Island (Nova Scotia) every year where a traditional Pow-wow takes place to commemorate her. This article explores the literary origins of Anne – and to a lesser extent, her husband Joachim – who are not Biblical characters at all, but rather they hail from the Early and Late Antique world of apocryphal literature before much later being rewritten into the mediaeval 13th century popular literary work of the Golden Legend, composed by de Voragine.
It is through their late hagiographic retellings as found in the late mediaeval bestseller the Golden Legend (Latin, Legenda aurea or Legenda sanctorum), authored by Jacobus de Voragine (circa 1260, Ryan 1993: xiii), that eventually resulted in establishing the apocryphal St. Anne as one of the most popular saints of the Roman Church (Maclean 1994: 50-53). In consequence to this phenomenal popularity, St. Anne also lent herself to be one of the more popular expressions of religious piety as expressed in mediaeval Renaissance art (Earls 1987: 44), motifs which will serve as illustrations in our current exploration of their original inspirational LA apocryphal literary sources.
The first mention of Anne and Joachim as being identified as the Virgin Mary’s parents occurs for the first time in the EA Protoevangelium of James (PJ) (an early apocryphal text dated around the middle of the 2nd century, originally entitled “The Nativity of Mary”; Elliott 2009; 48-49; Gambero 1999: 35-36). It is in this text that the pair is essentially described as being an older but not elderly wealthy couple who are afflicted by the problem of sterility, which in turn leads them to supplicate the Lord until one day their prayers are answered when angels announce to them that Anne shall soon conceive a child (Elliott 2009: 57-59; Gambero 1999: 35-36). It is this specific scene, commonly referred to as the Annunciation to Joachim and Anna, that would become a reoccurring apocryphal theme central to the extra-canonical legends surrounding Mary’s birth. This iconographic subject would later inspire many Renaissance artists to incorporate it into their works, one such notable work being this fresco detail by Gaudenzio Ferrari, 1544-45.
The PsMt is more precise on certain details though, for when the angels appear they announce not a genderless child to come, but rather instead they clearly promise Anne that she will bear a daughter. But, there are no mundane details of childbirth in the PsMt. In it, there is no mention of a midwife nor any other direct reference to labouring per se, for in the text it is as though Mary’s birth is simply foretold and then she is born, without any subsequent literary development in between to separate conception and birth. The author even neglects to make any reference to the duration of Anne’s pregnancy term. Here is the shorter abridged version of the annunciation and Mary’s birth scene as the PsMt relates it:
Besides these changes in the story as it was adapted in PsMt, one central element that was retained from PJ was that the angels each told Joachim and Anne independently that they were both to meet at the Golden Gate of the Temple in Jerusalem. Simply to illustrate the influence this apocryphal detail would have later in mediaeval Europe, it is quite specifically this meeting between Joachim and Anna at the Golden Gate of the Temple that would become an important theme in religious art, such as this interpretation by Benozzo Gozzoli (see Image 2 below). Furthermore, this hagiographic apocryphal account surrounding the annunciation to Joachim and Anne would enjoy immense popularity through its incorporation in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend (ca. 1260, Ryan 1993: xiii). Although non-canonical, this apocryphal story was not rejected by the mediaeval Church and in fact it was a custom to read it to the faithful on the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin, and in France especially in the churches of Normandy (Mâle 2000: 140).
In this last apocryphal text, the Nativity of Mary (NtM), the author expands in great detail the literary development surrounding Mary’s birth. In the annunciation scene to her parents, there is not a shred of doubt that appears in the narrative in regards to Mary’s holy future awaiting her. In contrast to the PJ, the original EA literary source for the Marian birthing story narrative, in it the angels had announced to Anne and Joachim the arrival of a child without any gender, and the author had given us a birthing scene with midwife and all the usual details. Then, as it passed into PsMt, the annunciation was recast as announcing the arrival of a female child and the author had removed all the mundane embellishments from the birthing scene as it was adapted from PJ into a more subdued reading. Finally, detached from the PsMt, now as the Marian sections become a text on its own merit in the NtM, it is here that the story becomes fully developed into its own right and sounds quite biblical in its rendition. In NtM, not only is the birth of the child of Joachim and Anne announced to the parents as being a female child, but furthermore in this text the author goes on in great detail to even inform of her name, that this female child will quite specifically be called Mary. After the angel informs Anne of her name, he even goes on to mention that this female child Mary shall be filled with the Holy Spirit whilst in the womb and goes on to give the expecting mother such biographical details as Mary’s eventual virgin birth of Jesus, whom is described in NtM as being the Saviour of nations (the Messiah). Evidently, this particular foretelling of Mary’s birth in NtM leaves no doubt as to the divine intention implicated in it, and even makes sure to implicitly mention that her divine birth from a barren Anne foreshadows in many ways the virgin birth she herself will experience one day.
Furthermore, the author of the NtM text has also completely removed any reference to a birthing scene. In following the literary progression as it passed from the EA PJ into first LA PsMt and then detached into NtM; firstly, PJ spoke of a birthing scene of child gender unknown complete with midwife, breastfeeding and need for purification, then adapted into PsMt these all too human mundane details were edited out of the story. In PsMt, the text simply states that after the annunciation where “3. …The angel comes to Anna and bids her meet Joachim at the Golden Gate of the Temple, which she does. 4 Mary is born. At three years old she is taken to the temple and walks up fifteen steps.” (PsMt.3-4; Elliott 2009: 88) Therefore, PsMt has edited out the birthing seen altogether in its minimalist approach. This is where it can be seen that the author of NtM has taken the basic literary skeleton left over from the editorial changes in PsMt, and has seemingly added a veneer to it writing in a language deemed more religious and sounds in fact quite biblical in contrast to the earlier original sources (PJ and PsMt) for the birthing story.
Undoubtedly, there is clearly a divinizing influence of not only Mary in the NtM but also of Joachim and Anne, since they are compared by—not simply anyone—but by an angel of God, whom refers to the soon-to-be parents as being similar in many ways to biblical figures which are the precursors to this “new testament” to come that will renew their link with God through the promise of a new offspring. If anything, in its innovation upon the stripped PsMt text, itself an edited version of PJ’s initial legend; as an end result, the NtM author retells the story of Mary’s birth in a religious language that makes it sound like it was directly taken from out of the pages of the canonical Bible scriptures, although it is not in the least. Further, in the annunciation scene as it is written in NtM, the Marian cult is evidently expressed in the grandiose annunciation of her birth to her parents. In consequence to this, seemingly Mary’s parents—especially Anne, her mother—appear as divine characters in this holy plot and seem to be undergoing the process of literary apocryphal canonization under our very eyes in this text. And, of course, the NtM text attests to the importance and emergence of the debate surrounding Mary’s “immaculate conception,” since the text makes Mary’s birth a highly divinized affair which lacks any real mundane detail in relation to a normal human birth, again this is in contrast to the birthing scene described in the EA PJ, ultimately the original apocryphal source text for the LA NtM.
To contextualize this preoccupation of Mary’s “immaculate conception” as present in the NtM, an intertextual analysis confirms that at the epoch its composition, probably in the 9th century (Klauck 2003: 80), the Roman Church was indeed greatly concerned with this particular dogma. The author of NtM seemingly deemed important in his composition of the text that there was not to be any “original sin” that would arise out of Mary’s birth. In reading one of the first lines of the previously quoted text of NtM, the author explains the reason behind Anne’s barrenness as being one with a divine purpose underlying it. The angel announces to Joachim: “For God is the avenger of sin, not of nature: and, therefore, when He shuts up the womb of any one, He does so that He may miraculously open it again; so that that which is born may be acknowledged to be not of lust, but of the gift of God.” (Ntm.Chap.3; Cushing Richardson & Pick 1886: 384-85) The words not of lust, but of the gift of God reveal to us that the details behind Anne’s womb bearing Mary as a child transcends the regular order of human biology. As a gift of God, Anne’s daughter Mary is announced by the angel as untainted by that usual sin that accompanies conception, instead of arising out of lust, as the author of NtM puts it.
Along these same lines, the NtM seems to want to further clarify and make clear beyond any doubt to the reader that the child Mary was filled with the Holy Spirit, even from her mother’s womb as opposed to any time later either during or after childbirth. The angel in NtM makes this explicit in explaining these crucial details surrounding untainted qualities (the “immaculate conception”) of Mary to Joachim, saying to him: “Accordingly thy wife Anna will bring forth a daughter to thee, and thou shalt call her name Mary: she shall be, as you have vowed, consecrated to the Lord from her infancy, and shall be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from her mother’s womb. She shall neither eat not drink any unclean thing, nor shall she spend her life among the crowds of people without, but in the temple of the Lord, that it may not be possible either to say, or so much as to suspect, any evil concerning her.” (Ntm.Chap.3; Cushing Richardson & Pick 1886: 384-85). Undoubtedly, the NtM serves to illustrate that the doctrine of original sin does not pertain to Mary’s birth, and that miraculously Anne’s womb has somehow been spared the usual biological “stain” of impurity; essentially, the womb has been sanctified by God. This helps in understanding how Mary’s mother, Anne—and her sacred womb—became somewhat of an extension of the Marian immaculata. Further, this greatly helps in understanding why the veneration of Anne was and is still far more popular than that of the father Joachim, he who is not a “natural” extension of Mary’s immaculate birth but he is rather instead a detached figure or a spectator to this holy conception.
The apocryphal NtM text therefore reveals itself to be of tantamount importance in understanding the emergence of the Marian cult. Even the religious dogma of “original sin” which the author makes sure the main protagonist of this early part of the text—the enwombed child Mary—is to desperately circumvent, is a referential point that can be dated to a specific time in the Church’s early founding doctrines. Since this doctrine of “original sin” underlies the Church dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary, let it be noted that it shall be explored in more great depth in the scope of this study not because it pertains to Mary but rather instead because it also pertains by association to the main subject of this study which is Anne, her mother. However, a better understanding is needed of what is meant by “original sin” before moving on to a more profound exploration of the dogma of the “immaculate conception,” the latter religious notion having derived from the former. Firstly, the doctrine of “original sin” became prominent in the Western church’s discourse because of the influence of Augustinian thought during the years 354-430 (Coyle 1996: 36). In consequence, Augustine’s understanding of “original sin” has greatly influenced the Western church’s understanding and the emergence of the dogma of Mary’s “immaculate conception” (Coyle 1996: 36).
In her chronological development of the Marian immaculata phenomenon as it relates to early Church history, Kathleen Coyle writes:
In this respect, the birthing scene having been removed altogether in the PsMt adaptation of the original source text PJ makes perfect ecclesiastic sense, since the author was seemingly removing Mary, along with her mother’s womb – and thereby her mother herself – were all being removed by a degree of separation from the tainted act of birthing which is usually reserved to the realm of biological functions deriving from the Christian perception of “original sin.” In relation to the NtM, dated to the 9th century (Klauck 2003: 80), at this point in time when its author was taking out the Marian portions from PsMt to adapt them in making a new text, historically this places us at a period in time long before the writings of the Irish Franciscan, Duns Scotus (1264-1308; Coyle 1996: 38). It is Scotus whom Coyle (1996: 38) credits in having finally solved (ca. 1300) the dilemma of Mary’s “immaculate conception” posing a threat to Christ’s “unique and saving redemption” (to use Coyle’s words), since he had developed “[…] the idea of preservative redemption as being a more perfect one: to have been preserved free from original sin was a greater grace than to be set free from sin” (Coyle 1996: 38). Most interestingly, this threat posed by Mary’s exalted state of “immaculate conception” in the womb of her mother Anne threatened and greatly undermined the very purpose of the coming of Christ. According to such a Christological argument, as Coyle writes, following this peculiar string of logic results in the following attestation:
Originating from the Eastern Christian Church, this feast was seen as a celebration of the doctrine that Mary had indeed been conceived without sin and that this consequently marked the point of the beginning of the flesh’s union with the Word of God (Hastings 2000: 415). The 9th century (Klauck 2003: 80) composition of the apocryphal NtM coincides roughly with that same period in time whence the feast of the Immaculate Conception, observed in the East by the 8th century, had made its first Western appearance in the British Isles by the 11th century at the latest, from whence it had spread to mainland Europe (Hastings 2000: 415; Clayton 1990: 50-51). Actually, Clayton (1990: 51) writes of the many Marian feasts that most were being celebrated in England from as early on as during the course of the 7th and 8th centuries, which is perfectly in line with the NtM’s proposed 9th century composition (Klauck 2003: 80). In her concluding remarks, concerning the celebration of the Marian feasts in England, Clayton writes:
Undoubtedly, the main reason for Anne and Joachim’s importance in the apocryphal literature are ultimately intertwined with the emergence of the doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (along with other Mariological doctrines) that would come to form the basis of the cult of Mary. Yet, even if Anne’s devotional cult was first born by association to that of her daughter’s own divine status, despite this hagiographic genealogy born of the apocryphal tradition, popular devotion to Anne seems to take on a life of its own within the Mariological scheme.
In terms of understanding the original development of the cult surrounding Anne, there is indeed proof attesting to the Marian feasts being celebrated in England from as early on as during the course of the 7th and 8th centuries (Clayton 1990: 51). Evidently, this is in line with Klauck’s (2003: 80) proposed 9th century composition of the NtM. But, besides this budding Mariology coming into continental Europe from the British Isles borrowed in turn from Eastern influences, aside from this Anglo-Saxon influence on the Western Church there appears to be yet another cultural stream in relation to Anne’s worship coming into the West. This other influence currently being alluded to also comes from the East, but this time brought into Western Europe by the Crusaders (Shoonbeeg 1988: 195). Concerning this possible devotional import brought back from Jerusalem by the Crusaders, Shoonbeeg (1988: 195) writes:
In retracing the tradition of devotion to Anne in the East where her worship originates, the earliest cultic attention she receives appears to be in 6th century Jerusalem and Constantinople (Nixon 2004: 12). Since the cult of Saint Anne seems to have been established in Northern Europe only by the 12th century (Nixon 2004: 13), evidently this adds much credence to the Crusaders’ Eastern influence. Therefore, if we look at the Holy Land during the time of the Crusades and the existing “pilgrim trade,” there are multiple historical records that can be found to support Jerusalem’s role in the dissemination of the devotion to Anne in the Western Church. In support of this cultural import brought into Europe by the Crusaders, Nixon (2004: 13) writes:
Therefore, it can be stated that despite all of the different streams of religious influences converging from the East into the West, even if they did bring into the Western Church diverse cultic elements into popular devotional practice, all of these differences seem to meet in the discourse as it pertained to Mary’s state of immaculata. Whether devotional practices in relation to Anne would come by way of the Crusaders into Europe from the Eastern presence in Jerusalem or by way of apocryphal influence developed in response to the earlier British Isles’ influence on the mainland; regardless of these disparate influences, Anne appears at the height of her worship as a sort of linchpin at the crux of her daughter’s state of im/purity. Thus, the cultic popularity enjoyed by Anne links her directly to the celebration of her daughter’s conception, a feast dedicated to Mary’s coming into existence.
In attempting to understand the threat this feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception posed to theologians, Nixon (2004) underlines some of the more obvious questions that beg to be asked in relation to such a devotional practice. She writes:
One such text assembles many of these hagiographic accounts originating from apocryphal tradition, the late mediaeval bestseller the Golden Legend (Latin, Legenda aurea or Legenda sanctorum) authored by Jacobus de Voragine (circa 1260; Ryan 1993: xiii). It is quite specifically this book that would eventually result in establishing the apocryphal St. Anne as one of the most popular saints of the Roman Church (Maclean 1994: 50-53).
The jump from the 9th century historical context in which the Late Antique NtM was written into the mediaeval 13th century whence de Voragine’s Golden Legend is composed—is indeed a significant leap in time. If indeed the NtM can be seen as having been primarily a liturgical text used mainly during the feast of the Immaculate Conception, on the contrary de Voragine’s more popular work drawing from apocrypha appears to have been composed during an era when there was a real need for a sort of textual renewal of the apocryphal material. The usual discourse used to explain the tantamount success and popularity of the Golden Legend material is that it was mainly due to the fact that the collection of apocryphal stories were presented as―to use Maddocks’ (1991) terms—as a “[…] simple repository of colourful, naïve tales written for an equally naïve lay audience” (Maddocks 1991: 1). Maddocks also gives as example the words of such influential commentators as Émile Mâle, as she puts it, he who “[…] successfully promoted the notion that the uncomplicated narrative structures of the saints’ lives [as recounted in de Voragine’s Golden Legend] struck a chord with the simple man and “offered a model after which to fashion his life” (Maddocks 1991: 1).
This assumption that the Golden Legend’s appeal lay in its simplicity and appeal to the common layperson remained unquestioned until Sherry Reames put forth a new suggestion. In relating this newfound perspective in explaining the immense popularity enjoyed by de Voragine’s 13th century hagiographic apocryphal retelling, Maddocks (1991) explains Reames’ innovative approach:
There is evidently a symbiotic relationship that exists between the apocrypha and canonical writings. Yet, all the more so, there also appears to be an ever-changing or evolving symbiosis that can be seen in relating the apocryphal (or non-apocryphal and non-canonical in the case of the Legenda) literature to the more official ecclesiastic theology. For instance, just as the author of LA PsMt deemed it fit to remove the birthing scene as the text was adapted from the EA PJ, editing out these all too human mundane details out of this new retelling of the birth of Mary, similarly this new version of the story reflected the Late Antique period in which the Western Church was mostly preoccupied with the polemical issues surrounding the taint of original sin being passed onto Mary from her mother.
This symbiotic relationship between official dogma that is reflected at the time of composition of the apocryphal text is much the same interrelationship at play in de Voragine’s Legenda. To keep with the same example, as the Marian portions of PsMt were detached to form the basis of NtM, this last author had gone even one step further than the PsMt in his attemps to further divinize the details surrounding the annunciation of Mary’s birth. Characters from the Hebrew Bible were brought into the NtM text to elevate Joachim and Anna to Biblical proportions not unlike Abraham and Sarah’s situation before having conceived Isaac in old age, etc. (NtM.Chap.3; Cushing Richardson & Pick 1886: 384-85). These literary elements of NtM have been previously explored in more depth earlier in this essay, but they are reintroduced here merely to serve as an example in relating apocryphal content to the Legenda. For in de Voragine’s work appears not simply a retelling of the same story that is to be found in the apocryphal tale preceding it, being the aforementioned NtM, probably composed in the 9th century (Klauck 2003: 80). On the contrary, exactly as its apocryphal inspirations innovated in symbiosis with ecclesiastic theology, de Voragine’s also innovates to reflect the Church’s preoccupations during the time of its composition.
The major innovation in 13th century Legenda as it relates to the cult of Anne is that suddenly she is cast not only as the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but also her story recounts her having been married on three separate occasions, thus producing a “[…] holy dynasty of daughters and grandsons” as Niebrzydowski (2006: 24) puts it. Often referred to as the Trinubium, Anne’s three marriages recast her not simply in the role of Mary’s mother as well as the maternal grandmother to Jesus, but also it made her into a holy matriarch of a vast extended family in which many Biblical figures were interrelated in this grand genealogy termed the Holy Kinship (Niebrzydowski 2006: 24-25). Although, the Trinubium was popularized by de Voragine, according to scholar Virginia Nixon (2004) the first mention of these other marriages of Anne appear is in an earlier 9th century text written by Haimo of Auxerre (Nixon 2004: 16).
The tradition of Anne’s Trinubium was one that was disseminated through the vernacular translations of the Legenda Aurea. Before going on to explore what this seemingly strange modification in Anne’s biographical account might signify, first let us take a closer look at this specific portion of de Voragine’s text which Niebrzydowski (2006) summarizes below:
Nonetheless, the Holy Kinship notion would eventually be absorbed in popular piety and even became a widespread theme in the arts such as in this painting by Geertgen tot Sint Jans.
Besides the apocryphal and non-canonical forces that helped shaped Anne into a burgeoning holy matriarch, by the High Middle Ages (c. 1000-1200) Anne’s cult was shaped by other forces in Northern Europe. As Nixon (2004: 17) writes, it is during this time that her immense popularity sees her in many rights become the centre of her own cult. In regards to these North European religious practices in relation to the worship of Anne, the author writes: