The Blessed Virgin’s parents fed the hungry

First slide

"(St. Jerome) relates therefore that Joachim, who was of Galilee and of the town of Nazareth, took to wife St. Anna of Bethlehem. Both were just, and walked without reproach in all the commandments of the Lord. They divided all their substance in three parts, allotting one part to the Temple and its ministers, and another to the poor and the pilgrims, reserving the third part to themselves and the uses of their household. Thus they lived for 20 years and had no issue of their wedlock; and they made a vow to the Lord that if He granted them offspring, they would dedicate it to the service of God."

That's part of the account of the Blessed Virgin Mary's parents in the Golden Legend, a source book widely used in the late Middle Ages by priests to inform their homilies on the feast days of the saints.

In the picture by Andrea di Bartolo at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, dated around 1405, the elderly pair gives one-third of their wealth to feed the poor, illustrating the first of the corporal acts of mercy - feeding the hungry.

On the left side, St. Joachim hands out loaves from a breadbasket to a crowd of petitioners, some suffering from crippling diseases, others clad in rags, and others with the pain of starvation incised on their faces. Turning the other way, St. Anne and a servant present the temple priest with a large bag of grain and a jug of wine.

As was customary for that period, the story is set against a gold background, which suggests that it is happening outside historical time and space. Yet, there are plenty of references to the real world of around 1400. Two buildings in miniature scale form a stage set, on the left a typically civic architecture resembling the open-air loggias that served as grain markets, and on the right a domed building with arched cross-vaults like a church. If we peer inside this make-believe temple we can glimpse a gold-background Gothic altarpiece hanging on the wall. Of course, no Jewish temple would have contained such an artwork, but di Bartolo, with this "picture within the picture," is underlining the continuity between Judaism and Christianity in sacred history.

The canonical books of the New Testament never mention the Virgin Mary's parents, yet traditions about her family, childhood, education and eventual betrothal to Joseph developed early in church history. The oldest and most influential source for these is the apocryphal Protevangelium of James, first written in Greek around the middle of the second century.

Patrons of the unborn

In modern devotions, Anne and her husband are invoked for protection for the unborn. That fits well with our image of them as exceptionally generous. The Golden Legend recounts that in her old age, Anne miraculously conceived and gave birth to Mary.

Di Bartolo was a second-generation artist in the Republic of Siena, an important rival of Florence in the 14th and 15th centuries as a center of commerce, learning, and above all, art. Siena was renowned for its charity, especially in the historic role of the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, which stands directly across the square from the cathedral of Siena. This rich and powerful hospital straddled the religious, financial and civic authorities of Siena, and it owned vast granaries in the nearby countryside. A few years after our little picture, a major Sienese artist painted a large mural of "The Feeding of the Poor" that is still on view at the hospital, now a museum.

The National Gallery's panel of "Joachim and Anna Feeding the Hungry" is one of three small paintings by di Bartolo, all related to the early life of the Virgin Mary and her parents that are on view in Gallery 3. They come from a predella, a lower strip of narrative scenes that lifted the altarpiece above the altar table, allowing the main scene to be fully visible during Mass. The main scene, likely depicting the Virgin and Child with St. Anne, has not been identified nor do we know where it was located originally. A good guess is that the altarpiece, long ago dismembered and dispersed, was in a church of the Carmelite order, which particularly venerated St. Anne.

Hamerman is a freelance writer from Reston.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016