Friday, April 18, 2008

The Holy Who?

Here's another "Living Color" picture from my trip to Europe: I'd seen this painting before in black and white, and was quite happy to be able to see it in person and appreciate the color. Here's a black and white detail of the part I was especially interested in:


The title of this painting in German, "Der Heilige Sippe," is actually rather intriguing. It means "the Holy Kinship" and refers to the Virgin Mary's (legendary) extended family. As Sally Fisher explains in The Square Halo (probably my favorite book on iconography), church fathers in the Middle Ages tried to reconcile the mention in the Gospels of Jesus's "brothers" with their idea that Mary remained a virgin all her life. Their solution was to imagine that Mary's mother Anna had been married three times, each time having a daughter named Mary. The children of those other Marys -- whom we would probably call cousins -- are the "brothers."

The "Holy Kinship" is therefore composed of Anna, her three husbands, Mary and Joseph and the Infant Jesus, together with Mary's two half-sisters and their husbands and children. Quite a crowd. Here's the whole scene, which I was able to see "backstage" at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum (to whom, thanks again!).


(I was thankful to see, by the way, that other photos of this same painting have the same problem this one does: the white veils and white faces tend to "wash out" because the features are very delicately shaded. It's not just my camera this time.)

In this particular painting, the four women toward the top with haloes are the Virgin and Anna (in the center), with the "other" Marys to either side, each with her husband behind her. The Mary on the far left is the mother of the apostles John the Evangelist (with goblet) and James the Greater (with pilgrim's staff). The one on the far right (thanks to Internet sources) I can identify as the mother of the apostles James the Less, Simon and Jude (though I'm not sure which is which here) along with another son, Joseph "the Just."

The tribe is further enlarged here by two more holy families: toward the bottom of the painting on the left is Mary's cousin Saint Elizabeth, her husband Zacharias, and son John the Baptist (pointing to a sacrifical lamb). The child on the right is Saint Servatius, grandson of Elizabeth's brother and identifiable by his key and bishop's staff (with which he is poking a pesky dragon).

In the back row, other than the two uncles on either end, are four men: on the right, Anna's three husbands, with Joachim directly above his grandson Jesus. To the left of Mary is Saint Joseph, and (to arrive at the whole point of this exercise) he is holding a rosary in his right hand.


Joseph is another of those saints who is often shown with a rosary -- to the extent that when I see Saint Joseph now, I automatically look for it. It's not always there, but quite often.

This time it's a rather ordinary rosary, really: a sort of generic series of plain brown beads, probably representing wood. I've seen others like it, and thanks to the extreme closeup view I was able to get this time, I can see pretty clearly just how the artist painted it. It's rather schematic and without a lot of detail: just a few shading strokes and a highlight on each bead, and a very light shadow painted on the wall behind (which is a nice touch). I don't think the numbers of beads are supposed to be precise here: what we see is a group of 10 small beads and a group that looks like 14, unless seven beads are hiding in Joseph's hand (where there's not really room for them).