[ Click on the above image for a full screen view ]
On the left side of the panel Saint Anna is shown resting on a bed after she has given birth to Mary. Her face is shown in deep contemplation and wonder at the mystery of the event, the birth of the Mother of God. To her left, two handmaidens stand holding gifts of eggs and a cup, symbols of fecundity. Below, a midwife and a servant girl bathe the infant Mary in a chalice-shaped bowl of water. On the right, Saint Anna and Saint Joachim are shown sitting on a throne holding Mary between them. Although the Virgin is depicted as a small baby sized figure her face is that of an adult.
The feast of the Nativity of the Virgin originated in 5th century Jerusalem. The iconography is usually the first in the 'feast tier' section of an iconostasis, as it can be understood as the origin of all feasts. Vespers for the feast (September 8th) magnify the significance of the event: 'Today Anna the barren gives birth to the Mother of God, foreordained from all generations to be the habitation of the King of all.'
St Anna is not a biblical figure, but is first mentioned in the Protoevangelium of James, a highly important 2nd century text of the New Testament apocrypha that forms the basis of the Church's tradition on the life of Mary up to the Incarnation of Christ. In the narrative Anna is initially barren, and, lamenting her inability to conceive, offers a prayer to God in her garden:
And gazing towards the heaven, she saw a sparrow's nest in the laurel, and made a lamentation in herself, saying: Alas! Who begot me? And what womb produced me? Because I have become a curse in the presence of the sons of Israel, and I have been reproached, and they have driven me in derision out of the temple of the Lord. Alas! To what have I been likened? I am not like the fowls of the heaven, because even the fowls of the heaven are productive before You, O Lord. Alas! To what have I been likened? I am not like the beasts of the earth, because even the beasts of the earth are productive before You, O Lord. Alas! To what have I been likened? I am not like these waters, because even these waters are productive before You, O Lord. Alas! To what have I been likened? I am not like this earth, because even the earth brings forth its fruits in season, and blesses You, O Lord.
After her prayer an angel visits Anna and tells her she will now conceive:
And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by, saying: Anna, Anna, the Lord has heard your prayer, and you shall conceive, and shall bring forth; and your seed shall be spoken of in all the world.
This scene is depicted in the 14th century mosaic cycle of the Chora Monastery in Istanbul (see fig.).
The scene in the text relating directly to our icon follows the above passages:
And her months were fulfilled, and in the ninth month Anna brought forth. And she said to the midwife: What have I brought forth? And she said: A girl. And said Anna: My soul has been magnified this day. And she laid her down. And the days having been fulfilled, Anna was purified, and gave the breast to the child, and called her name Mary.
The cult of St Anna in Byzantium is quite late. She only begins to be substantially evoked in the church - especially in homilies, hymns and iconographies - from the 8th century onward. One of the most powerful icons from this period (or any period) is known as 'St Anna of Faras', an 8th - 9th century wall-painting from Sudan (see fig. a).