How did Saint Anne, not mentioned in the Bible, become one of the most important saints of the Church’s second millennium? The answer has to do with the shifting role of the laity since the high Middle Ages and the central pivot point of the Incarnation in this shift. Let me begin with a personal anecdote.
On my mother’s side of the family, almost all of the women either bear the name Mary/Marie/Maria or Anne/Anna, or have one of those for their middle names. My mother’s name is Mary and her younger sister is Anne. This trend goes back several generations. My sisters and cousins have continued this trend this to a surprisingly large extent: I have one niece named Anna, one named Maria, and another with the middle name Ann, and there are next-gen Marys scattered throughout my extended family.
It’s worth noting that there are a few Joachims in my mother’s family tree as well! Oddly, perhaps, there are not so many Josephs. This is not entirely without significance, I suspect. Joseph holds a place of distinction in the roster of saints, but Our Lord Jesus Christ derives His sacred humanity through Joachim, Anne, and Mary, and not through Joseph.
What we know about Saint Joachim and Anne comes primarily from the Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal work from about the year A.D. 145. It it a biography of the Virgin Mary, and includes the story of her barren mother miraculously conceiving and giving birth. The Protoevangelium was an extrememly popular work in the early Church, despite the fact that it never achieved canonical status (and was even condemned by various high-ranking clergymen and synods). Several feast days (The Nativity of Mary, The Presentation of Mary, Saints Joachim and Anne) derive directly from this text. Important iconographic details do as well, such as the motif of Mary weaving the temple veil at the time of the Annunciation.
All well and good! Now, to return to my opening question: if Saints Joachim and Anne were already well-known to Origen in the third century, why does the cult of Saint Anne become so important much later? The answer, as I have already indicated, involves the sanctity of marriage and the growth of popular devotion to the humanity of Christ, in the Real Presence, and in the devotio moderna styles of prayer such as the Stations of the Cross.
My account of this will necessarily be a summary that skips lots of details. If you would like to read more about this, I cannot recommend highly enough the two excellent books by my friend Rachel Fulton Brown: From Judgement to Passion and Mary and the Art of Prayer.
Saints Joachim and Anne grew in popularity along with the twelfth- and thirteenth-century movement to recognize marriage as a full-fledged sacrament, and therefore a conduit of grace. Holiness, in much of the early Church, was connected almost exclusively with virginity and celibacy (the renunciation of marriage), and therefore married persons were considered to occupy a lesser place in the Body of Christ. The marriage of Mary and Joseph did not function as easily as an icon of sanctifying marital love in part because of the miraculous nature of Christ’s conception of a virgin. As I mentioned above, the sacred humanity of Christ does not derive from Joseph. This shifts the focus back a generation to Joachim and Anne, and helps to set the stage for a growth in the interest in the Immaculate Conception.
Saint Anne is also linked to a growth in, and a desire for, female literacy. Many icons of Saint Anne with the Virgin Mary show her teaching the young girl to read. In the West, the Annunciation icon frequently depicts Mary reading her breviary or book of hours (again, read Mary and the Art of Prayer!). The books thus depicted were meant to encourage lay women to learn to read and to teach their daughters to read, as a stimulus to prayer. Saint Anne is important in this because Mary’s ability to read (in these accounts) is connected to her ability to hear and give her fiat to the angel Gabriel, thereby undoing the disobedience of Eve, who listened and followed the temptations of the serpent. Thus, Saint Anne’s tutelage of her daughter is closely linked with salvation.
Saint Anne would go on to have many powers attributed to her, particularly help in childbirth. In the case of Saint-Anne-de-Beaupre (the patron of Quebec), she would also be connected to the safety of merchant sailors. Last of all, Saint Joachim was reintroduced, in a sense, to this collection of devotions with the revision of the calendar, undoubtedly to underline the sanctity of marriage.
Since much of the devotion to Saint Anne in the last eight centuries has been driven by the interests of the laity, the music composed in her honor is largely paraliturgical. In our celebration of Solemn Vespers a week from Friday, we are able to make use of two of the best examples of the motets (choral pieces on sacred themes but not necessarily liturgical) in her honor. However, I was not able to track down any settings of the hymn proper to the feast. So Kevin Allen and I took this as another opportunity to co-compose a new piece for the liturgy. We are both very pleased with how it turned out, and we hope that many of our friends will be there to hear the premiere on Friday, July 26, at 7:00 p.m.!