EMERENTIA, ISMERIA, MARIA — GIVING JESUS A GREAT-GRANDMOTHER

Today we will go a bit abroad from Eastern Orthodox icons, and take a quick look at an apocryphal character in the family tree of Jesus.

Here is a carved and painted image by the “Urban Master of Hildesheim”:

( Photographed at the Metropolitan by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.)

It depicts at lower left, the child Jesus seated on the lap of his mother Mary.  Beside them sits St. Anne, by apocryphal tradition the mother of Mary, as well as the grandmother of Jesus.  But the female figure towering above them, with staff in one hand and open book in the other, is the seldom seen “great-grandmother” of Jesus.

She actually has a name, but that name varies depending on the source.  In this image and others, she is called Emerentia or Emerantia.  Elsewhere — particularly in Florentine manuscripts — she is called Ismeria.

We find the tale of Emerentia in the Vita Iesu Christi of Ludolph of Saxony (c. 1300-1378):

It relates that seventy years before the “incarnation of the divine Word,” there was a virgin born of the root of David who used to visit the sons of the prophets on Mount Carmel.  It is said that one of them had a dream in which he saw a root with two trees growing out of it.  One of the trees had three branches, and one of the branches had flowers more pure and fragrant than the others.  A voice in the dream said,  Hec radix est Emerentia nostra — “This root is our Emerentia,” and added that she was destined to have great descendants.

Two Florentine manuscripts — one the 14th century MS Panciatichiano 40, the other the  15th century MS 1052  (in the National Central Library and Riccardiana library of Florence, respectively) give the name of St. Anne’s mother as Ismeria, and offer different details.

The reason for mentioning all of this is that readers may encounter some rather peculiar, newly-painted icons depicting Jesus sitting on the lap of Mary, and Mary sitting on the lap of St. Anne, and St. Anne sitting on the lap of her supposed mother, to whom the new icons give the name “Maria.”  These new icons are apparently based on the old images of Mary sitting on St. Anne/Anna’s lap, and Jesus seated on Mary’s lap.  Combinations of the three figures are found in old European art, and German even has the term Anna Selbdritt (German, meaning loosely “as a group of three”) for depictions of St. Anne, Mary, and Jesus as a group.

Of course none of these names for a supposed great-grandmother of Jesus are historical, but are merely the product of Christian inventiveness.

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