I’m taking up the slack today while Caroline attends a conference.
I just got back yesterday from Europe, where, among other things, I attended a magnificent conference at Leuven in Belgium marking the 450th anniversary of the closing session of the Council of Trent. More on that later.
I also took a lot of photos of historical places and objects for use in Church History courses.
I spent a week based in Zürich visiting places in eastern Switzerland and southern Germany. Then I had a week in Belgium at the above-mentioned conference.
Anyway, while I was wandering around art galleries and museums, I was struck by four examples of an image that seems to have appeared a lot in late mediaeval and early Renaissance art, but, as far as I know, hasn’t shown up since then (I’d gladly be corrected on that if there are Art Historians amid our readership).
Below are four representations of Jesus’s family. The first three are photos I took. The fourth I saw in the exhibition at Leuven of works by Michiel Coxcie (1499-1592). They didn’t allow photography, so I’ve linked to the image provided by the exhibition.
Around Christmas we’re used to seeing pictures of the “Holy Family” (TM): i.e. Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Sometimes they’re with other figures from the biblical narratives – particularly the wise men and the shepherds. But the Holy Family proper is always now a strictly nuclear unit.
In large part this is because the canonical scriptures are pretty vague about the exact nature of Jesus’s whanau. Arguably, they’re not even that interested in it. But the Middle Ages had no such scruples about canonicity, and its religious art presents us with a very different view of Jesus’s family life.
In these images of the Heilige Maagschap (Holy Kinship) the women are at the forefront. There’s Saint Anne (once described to me by a Welsh friend as “Holy Annie, God’s Granny”), her daughter Mary the Mother of God, and Mary’s two half-sisters, Mary Salome and Mary Clopas/Cleophas (thereby, I suppose, God’s aunties).
According to an extremely complex mediaeval tradition based on a mixture of non-canonical gospels like the Proto-Evangelium of James, and some pure confusion (codified by Haimo of Auxerre in the 9th century) the Virgin Mary’s mother Saint Anne married two other husbands after the death of her first husband Joachim. For reasons best known to her, Anne named all three daughters Mary. Mary Salome married one Alphaeus and became mother of Jesus’s cousin James the Lesser and a Joseph. Mary Cleophas married her step-father’s brother Joseph (this is getting Jeremy Kyle complicated), and bore James the Greater and John the Evangelist.
This story’s bound to send members of the Society for Biblical Literature into a tailspin of historico-critical despair, and it’s clear that it fell from favour because of 16th century Christianity’s new concern for historical authenticity. But it does tell us some interesting things about late mediaeval Christianity.
It’s often said that 16th century began the institutionalisation of western Christianity. In other words, Christian life was increasingly focussed on the parish, the parish school, Christian instruction, and, as John Bossy once rather pessimistically suggested, the social discipline needed to turn people into obedient and cooperative subjects of the emerging modern state.
If inclulcating obedience was the focus of early modern Christianity, the focus of mediaeval Christianity was “charity,” by which English-speakers meant the the kindness and generosity that one owed to friends and family (or, as they would have put it, “kith and kin”). While early modern Christianity taught children to obey the ten commandments, pre-modern Christianity taught them the “seven corporal works of mercy” (i.e. of their duty to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc.). An early modern child learnt to be a good Christian by memorising the catechism; the pre-modern child learnt to practice “charity” in the context of a large extended family and in groups of peers like trade guilds or holy clubs for laywomen and men (e.g. the confraternities that have been such hot topic of research in mediaeval/early modern church history)
As with all historical generalisations, one can find counter-examples in both periods. Also, I don’t want to romanticise pre-modern Christianity. Extended families and social groups can be as stifling in their own ways as church hierarchies and modern governments.
Moreover, when modern Christianity focusses on “family values” to the point of glibness and stridency, it’s useful to be reminded that, in the New Testament at least, the importance accorded to the family seems a bit ambiguous.
On the other hand, as someone who was fortunate enough to grow up in a large and close extended family, I’m struck by the way in which these pictures capture the joy that can emerge from this kind of relationship (OK, I admit the Holy Kin look a bit dour in the third picture), and the way in which the children are celebrated and loved not just by their parents, but by siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and various other kin. In the Chur altarpiece, in particular, there’s a joy on the faces of the three Maries which, as a kid, I was very conscious of receiving from the adults in my family, and now experience every time I meet the next generation in my own extended family.
May we all have the opportunity to experience that kind of enjoyment in the company of kith or kin – preferably both.
[Addendum: I found a couple more images of the Holy Kinship as I was looking for the Michiel Coxcie image. So I’m adding them down here, because I’m on a roll]