Saint Anne: The Iconography

The dormition of St. Anne, who was the mother of Mary, the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God – Roman Martyrology for July 26

Mary's parents are not in scripture, but they are named as Anne and Joachim in the second-century Protevangelium of James, the principal source of the Golden Legend's account of Mary's nativity.

As the story goes, Anne and Joachim went 20 years without having children. Consequently Joachim was refused entrance to the Temple and took his sheep into the hills with a heavy heart. But then an angel announced to the two that their prayers for a child were answered and they should meet at the Golden Gate of the Temple. Mary was born nine months later.

Until the late medieval period, St. Anne is seen mostly in narrative images based on this story. The two episodes most commonly painted are the Golden Gate and the Birth of Mary. The latter is treated at this page on the web site. The typical Golden Gate image shows Anne and Joachim embracing (example), sometimes with the encouragement of an angel who places his hands on their heads (example).

Probably the richest period for St. Anne images was between about 1480 and 1520 in northern Europe. Popular devotion to St. Anne gave rise to a new iconographic type known as Anna Selbdritt, as in the first picture at right and this small private "altarpiece" from about 1490. The phrase Anna Selbdritt literally means "Anne herself the third," or if you will "Granny makes three." Typically Anne is shown as a vigorously mature adult posed with the Christ Child and a Mary who is usually quite young.

The type may have evolved from Birth of Mary images. In one such image from the 14th century the small figure of Mary on Anne's lap holds on her own lap a smaller image of the Christ Child.

In the late 15th and early 16th centuries several ways of arranging the figures developed. Sometimes they are disposed vertically, as we see in the first picture at right, in a pattern resembling that of the Throne of Wisdom. A statue from Belgium seems influenced by the Throne of Wisdom type in having the child on Mary's lap holding a book, though both Jesus and Mary perch sideways on St. Anne's right arm. Other images have Anne holding her daughter and grandson in each of her two arms, as in the Riemenschneider sculpture in Würzburg.

A third pattern seats St. Anne and Mary side-by-side with Jesus between them or on a lap (example). This allows for the addition of secondary figures behind the two women. For example, the Anna Selbdritt sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum places St. Anne's mother St. Emerentia behind the seated women. Or the image may be filled with all or some of St. Anne's "Holy Kinship" (example), in which the Golden Legend included her three husbands, three daughters named Mary, three sons-in-law, niece Elizabeth, grandnephew John the Baptist, and seven grandchildren, including five apostles and one Messiah!

The years after 1520 were less kind to Anne (Nixon, 121-31). In the north her apparent age grew older, and she was moved back into the shadows, as in the second picture at right. In Spain the traditional imagery did continue through the 16th century, (example) and the subject was exported to Mexico (example).

The subject of St. Anne's teaching Mary to read also developed in the Middle Ages, as we see in this rood screen from the 14th century and this statue from the 15th. A 16th-century version retains the Anna Selbdritt iconography while Anne holds a book for Mary to look at. One unusual variation has St. Anne teaching an adult Mary while St. Joseph stands by. The tradition has continued to be popular in modern times, for example in this statue from 1890. A 19th-century mosaic poses the mother and daughter together but without a book.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2015-07-29, 2016-09-02.


St. Anne, Spain, 17th-century (See description page)

Lorenzo d'Alessandro di San Severino, The Madonna and Saint Anne, 1590 (See description page)

Orthodox mosaic of St. Anne, mid-12th century (See description page)



  • Feast day: July 26