workshop of Geertgen tot Sint Jans: The Holy kinship (1490)

(Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

A painting by the workshop of the Dutch artist Geertgen tot Sint Jans (1465 – 1495). This painting, an altarpiece of an unknown church, shows the 'holy kinship': the family of Jesus descended from his maternal grandmother Saint Anne. The basis of this kinship is the 'trinubium', a story from Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea (the Golden Legend):

Anna is usually said to have conceived three Marys,Whom her husbands Joachim, Cleophas, and Salome begot.These [Marys] the men Joseph, Alpheus, and Zebedee took in marriage.The first bore Christ; the second bore James the Less,Joseph the Just, with Simon [and] Jude;The third, James the Greater and the winged John.

According to the legend Saint Anna married three times:
- with Joachim, this marriage produced the daughter Mary the virgin
- with Clopas, this marriage produced the daughter Mary of Clopas
- with Solomas, this marriage produced the daughter Mary Salomæ

The virgin Mary married with Joseph and was the mother of Jesus. Mary of Clopas married with Alphaeus and was the mother of the James the Less, Jude, Joseph the Just and Simon. Mary Salome married with Zebedee and was the mother of the apostels James the Greater and John. Saint Anne also has a sister, Hismeria or Esmeria, was the mother of John the Baptist’s mother Elizabeth and of a second child, Eliud, who was in turn the grandfather of Saint Servatius.
The painting shows a fictitious church with the members of the holy family scattered around the interior. On the left side is saint Anna (bottom left) and Mary with the christ child on her lap. Behind them stand their husbands Joachim and Joseph. On the right side is Elizabeth, Mary the virgin's cousin, and her son John the Baptist. Behind Elizabeth are Mary Cleophas (in profile) and Mary Salome. Playing on the church floor between the two groups are Simon Zelotes with the saw (the son of Mary Cleophas and Alpheus), Saint John the Evangelist with the chalice, and James the Greater with the tiny barrel of wine. The other figures are not identified but are probably the rest of the family: James the Less, Jude Thaddeus, Joseph the Just, Cleophas (St Anne’s second husband), Alpheus, Salomas (St Anne’s third husband) and Zebedee (Mary Salome’s husband). On the altar is a sculpture of the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham which is a prefiguration of Christ’s Crucifixion. On the choir screen behind the altar are the scenes The Adoration of the Magi, The Massacre of the Innocents and The Entry into Jerusalem, which also are allusions to Christ’s future sacrifice. For which church this altarpiece was intended is not known but the prominent position of Elizabeth and John the Baptist might indicate that the painting was commissioned by the Knights of St John in Haarlem for the City’s St John’s Hospital. Painting from around 1490.