The Gospels refer to Christ's "brothers," but the extended family presented in this altarpiece emerged from medieval legends. The subject -- usually called the Holy Kinship -- appears often from the late fifteenth century, especially in northern Europe. Its popularity was fostered by development of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which holds that Mary was conceived without sin, and the increased veneration of her mother, Saint Anne, that resulted. This group, designed to rest on an altar, may be one of the very earliest interpretations of this subject in sculpture.
Mary and her mother are in the center with the infant Jesus. Flanking them are Anne's other two daughters, Mary Cleophas and Mary Salome, born to two subsequent marriages. Behind each woman stands her husband; in Anne's case there are three husbands. Gathered at their feet are the children, the cousins who became Jesus' disciples: St. James the Greater and John the Evangelist are sons of Mary Salome; St. James Minor, Judas Thaddeus, Simon, and Joseph the Just are the children of Mary Cleophas, the last riding a hobby horse, steadying himself with his mother's hand. It is a crowded and lively group. The boys tussle and play, and eat grapes symbolic of the Eucharist. The three sisters share a serene resemblance to each other. Only Saint Anne seems to have insight and understanding of the future.
The faces and costumes are richly varied. Their brilliant colors are remarkably well preserved; probably because this original paint was protected by overpaint applied in later times.
The Holy Kinship
MATERIAL: Polychromed wood relief
DIMENSIONS: 128 x 112.5 x 27 cm (50 3/8 x 44 5/16 x 10 5/8 in.)
COLLECTION: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Patrons' Permanent Fund
ACCESSION NUMBER: 2002.13.1