Illuminated manuscripts, Subjects for discussion

The early life of The Virgin Mary

During this Christmas week of waiting, I have wondered about Mary’s early life, her parents and how their story is portrayed in images.

There are only 150 manuscripts that refer to the parents of the Virgin, including the apocryphal Gospel of St James, known as the Protovangelium, which was written in the second century A.D.   Mary’s parents do not feature in the ‘official’ Bible, but clearly she did not just ‘appear’. These surviving documents tell us that Mary’s mother was St Anne and her father, St Joachim.  St Anne is also recognised in the Qu’ran, and appears in the writings of the Eastern Orothodox Church.

Anne was of the line of David and came from Bethlehem and after she married the comfortably off Joachim, they lived together in Nazareth. Unfortunately, during their marriage they were not blessed with children and according to the Christian story, Joachim had been refused entry to the Temple because his marriage had been childless. As a result of being spurned by Temple officials for his inability to father children, he went into the mountains to pray and meditate. His wife Anne remained at home and, she too prayed and promised that if she were to become pregnant then she would dedicate the child to the service of the Lord. During their time of separation, both Joachim and Anne were visited by an angel who told them both that Anne would bear a child.

Giotto Bordone (1266-1337) painted a narrative of the lives of St Anne & Joachim, the life of the Virgin and that of Christ in a series of frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Below Giotto portrays Joachim asleep, and during his slumbers Joachim is visited by the angel who gives him the news that he and his wife Anne will have a child.

Dream of Joachim - Giotto - Padua 1305
The Dream of Joachim 1305.  Giotto Bordone (1266-1337).  Scorvegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

The angel tells Anne to go and meet her husband at the city of Jerusalem. When she see Joachim, they embrace and rejoice because, according to a contemporary of Albrecht Dürer, the angel had told them both that they would have a daughter who would be a powerful Queen of both earth and heaven. (i)

Durer - Anne and Joachim - 1504 Life of the Virgin
Joachim & Anne at the Golden Gate of Jerusalem (woodcut).  1504. Albrecht Dürer. The Life of the Virgin.

Mary is also known as the Queen of Heaven, and also represents Mother Church.  In the central panel of the altarpiece created for the Compagna della Miseracordia by the Tuscan artist Piero della Francesco (c1415-1492) Mary is portrayed in her role as Mother of the Church sheltering the faithful under her cloak.

central panel of Piero della Francesco Arezzo Altarpiece - Mary as Mother Church
Central Panel of Polyptych of Misericordia 1445-65. Piero della Francesco (1415-1492).  Now in Pinacoteca Comunale, Sansepolcro

This panel was commissioned in 1445, but della Francesco ignored the time constraints set down in the original contract and it was not finished for a further twenty years. Image.

The writers of the Christian story will have us believe in the ultimate purity of Mary, and also of St John the Baptist, whose conceptions were revealed to both St Anne and St Elizabeth by an angel. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated on 8th December. On a further note, St Anne’s sister was Sobe, and according to St Hippolytus of Rome (died c231) Sobe was the mother of St Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. The Greek Orthodox church celebrates the Feast of the Nativity of St Elizabeth on 8th September, but the Church of Rome celebrates this on 5th November.

According to the 6th century sermon of the Christian, John of Damascus, Anne is only married once, but by the late middle ages legend has it that, Joachim dies shortly after the birth of his daughter and Anne remarries, not once, but twice more.  Her second husband was Cleopas, and her third – a man called Salome. Apparently Anne gave birth to two more daughters whom she also called Mary. These two Mary’s are identified by their father’s surnames and are the ones who were also being at the foot of the cross during the Crucifixion, together with Christ’s mother Mary.

Whether Joachim died shortly after his daughter’s birth or not, at the age of three Mary is handed over to the Temple authorities where she remained until she was finally betrothed to Joseph.  A festival celebrating Mary’s presentation was first celebrated in eastern versions of Christianity during the 6th century, but did not appear in the West until five centuries later.  During the medieval period veneration of Mary grew, but it was not until the late 16th century at the behest of Pope Sixtus V, Mary’s presentation to the Temple was entered in the liturgical calendar and becomes celebrated as the Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary on 21st November.

In Hebrew and Arabic the equivalent name to Anne is Hannah, which means favour or grace. Scholars have noted that there are great similarities between the story of St Anne and that of the Old Testament Hannah, who was the mother of the prophet Samuel. Like Anne, Hannah was also barren, but after imploring the Lord to give her a male child, falls pregnant and produces a son.

Both Anne and her daughter Mary are both recognised by Islam. In the Qu’ran, finding herself pregnant, Anne (Hannah in Arabic as well as Hebrew) dedicated her unborn child to God with the words “O my Lord! I do dedicate unto Thee what is in my womb for Thy special service: So accept this of me: For Thou hearest and knowest all things.” (ii) As we know, Anne (Hannah), gave birth to a girl and in fulfilment of her promise the Qu’ran tells us she dedicates her daughter with the words: “O my Lord! Behold! I am delivered of a female child!”- and Allah knew best what she brought forth- “And no wise is the male Like the female. I have named her Mary, and I commend her and her offspring to Thy protection from the Evil One, the Rejected.“(iii)

Birth of the Virgin - Met NY 1503-4 Durer
Nativity of the Virgin (1503-4) Woodcut. Albrecht Dürer. 

In Dürer’s woodcut of Mary’s birth it is difficult to work out whether she has been born, until you spot the woman bottom right, who holds what appears to be a baby with a full head of hair and has a pail of water at her feet.  Is this woman bathing the new born infant, or is this her own and St Anne (in bed) has yet to give birth.  Over this busy scene is an angel who swings a thurible over those below.

Despite Anne and Mary’s story being told in the Qu’ran, the two Abrahamic faiths of Islam and Judaism do not recognise Jesus as the Messiah.

The story of Mary moves towards the end of its first phase with her engagement to Joseph.  Their engagement inspired another great artist of the Italian Renaissance, Raphael Sanzio da Urbino.  This painting is now in Milan.

Screen Shot 2018-12-19 at 20.12.48
La Spozalizio (Engagement) 1504.  Raphael Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520) Pinacoteca de Brera, Milan.

In England was a relatively new dynasty.  Also painted at the beginning of the 16th century is this full page illumination by an anonymous illuminator – probably English, but possibly the document was sent away to be illuminated to the Netherlands.

Anne & Joachim at the Golden Gate
Full page illumination showing Henry VII & family below Joachimm and Anne at the Gold Gate.  Bodleian Library, Oxford.


When it comes to visual propaganda promoting the Tudor dynasty, an anonymous artist was employed to show the story of the Joachim and Anne in this early 16th century full page illumination showing Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth of York with all their children, including those who died in infancy or childhood.  However, do not think these are accurate portraits of the Tudor royals because this was probably not painted in England, therefore the artist would have not known what Henry or Elizabeth (or their children) looked like.

The central image above the royal family is of the St Anne and Joachim embracing at the city gate of Jerusalem with other elements of the story of the Virgin in smaller rectangles in the margins. these have to be read anticlockwise, with Joachim and Anne at the Temple in the top left hand corner.  Joachim is on his knees.  Bottom left we see Joachim in the country being visited by the angel and this scene is echoed in the bottom right where Anne sits at her devotions.  At the top right we see Anne with the infant Mary in her abdomen and Anne’s hands clasped in prayer.  The royal coat of arms, with the red lion of Wales and the Beaufort greyhound sit centrally in the top margin.  What are also very evident are the Beaufort portcullis and the red rose of Lancaster. The Beaufort portcullis echoes the portcullis of the city gate of Jerusalem, the bottom of which we can just see above the heads of the Virgin’s parents.   The second element of Tudor symbolism, the red rose of Lancaster, is also associated with the Virgin. Red roses had come to symbolise Christ’s passion and the blood of martyrs, but in antiquity the Romans and Greeks celebrated the rose in the feast of Rosalia as a commoration of the dead.

You have to wonder if later in 1533, Henry VIII and his Queen Anne knew that the Greek church celebrated the birth of the mother of John the Baptist on the 8th September and chose to name their daughter Elizabeth after her because their daughter was born on 7th September, the day before this feast. The Church of Rome regards the 8th September as the nativity of the Virgin, but since Henry already had a daughter named Mary, surely it cannot be a coincidence that the king chose to name his second daughter Elizabeth having been born so near to the Greek church feast day. For a king who was so focused on dynasty, it does not take much imagination to see why he he named his two daughters after the two most important women in Christianity. This is a convoluted thought I know, but back in the 16th century people knew much more about the writings of the early saints than we do today, and Henry was a highly educated man. Neither should we lose sight of the fact that Henry had written a refutation of Luther’s 95 theses of 1517 earning him recognition from Pope Leo X in 1521, who bestowed the title “Defender of the Faith” on the Tudor King.

While it is is possible that Henry did know the date the Greek church celebrated the birth of St Elizabeth’s, but it is, of course, also the name of Henry’s own mother, Elizabeth of York. Naming his new daughter Elizabeth could also have been a homage to his own mother.



i.  Abbot Benedictus Chelidonius who worked with Dürer on the book, The Life of the Virgin, which was illustrated with Dürer’s woodcuts.

ii. Qu’ran 3.35 Translated by Muhammad M Pickthall

iii. Qu’ran 3.36 Translated by Muhammad M Pickthall


The Quran: Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Ed.

Bodleian Library.

Albrecht Dürer: The Life of the Virgin: Anne & Joachim at the Golden Gate, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung Munchen:  Nativity of the Virgin, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


2 thoughts on “The early life of The Virgin Mary”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.