Monday, December 20, 2010

Medieval Manuscripts: Legend of Jesus' Great-Grandmother

Catherine Lawless, a history lecturer at Ireland's University of Limerick, has studied newly discovered manuscripts from 14th- and 15th-century Florence, Italy that tell a tale of Ismeria, reputed to be Jesus' great-grandmother. Lawless studied the St. Ismeria story in two manuscripts: the 14th century "MS Panciatichiano 40" of Florence's National Central Library and the 15th century "MS 1052" of the Riccardiana Library, also in Florence.The manuscripts assert that Ismeria was the mother of St. Anne, who later gave birth to Mary.

From her paper's abstract:

This article will examine an unusual legend contained in Florentine fifteenth-century manuscripts concerning St Ismeria, the ‘grandmother’ of the Virgin. Unlike more well-known versions of the Holy Kinship of Christ, where Ismeria is described as the sister of St Anne and grandmother of St John the Baptist, in this legend she is instead firmly described as St Anne’s mother and thus the grandmother of the Virgin and the great-grandmother of Christ. Most of the legend is concerned with Ismeria’s life of penitential piety as a wife and widow and has little in common with standard legends of the Virgin or of St Anne, but has strong resonances within the world of late medieval Florentine piety and the type of ‘new’ sanctity defined by Vauchez, where sanctity is earned by a life of penitence rather than with blood martyrdom. The contents of the codices which house the legends are typical of medieval vernacular writings and contain more traditional lives of the Virgin and accounts of the Holy Kinship. The way in which these legends lay side by side with such contradictory material suggests a fluidity in the way holy narratives were accepted.

From an article on AOL News by Theunis Bates:

There is no biblical-era evidence to support the manuscripts' assertion that Ismeria was the mother of St. Anne, who later gave birth to Mary. (Other medieval sources suggest Ismeria may have been Anne's sister). Instead, Lawless suspects that the story may have been created by a religious order as a "morality tale" intended to teach Florentine women how to be good wives, and later, widows.

The manuscripts, analyzed by Lawless in the latest issue of the Journal of Medieval History, tell how the lovely Ismeria -- "the daughter of Nabon of the people of Judaea, and of the tribe of King David" -- married St. Liseo, who is described as "a patriarch of the people of God."

As a sign of her piety, Ismeria asked Liseo to only call her to the matrimonial bed one night a month. (During the month of holy fasting, they'd avoid each other entirely). "They lived together for 12 years in great joy and in penitence," writes Lawless, "and then had a beautiful daughter whom they named Anne." Twelve years later, Liseo died and Ismeria willingly allowed her relatives to walk off with all of her riches.

Reduced to poverty, Ismeria sought sanctuary in a hospital, where she carried out two Jesus-esque miracles. First, she restored a deaf-mute man's hearing and speech, and then she filled a shell with enough fish to feed all of the clinic's patients. Satisfied with this act of spontaneous seafood generation, she returned to her room and prayed for God to release her from the "vainglory of this world." Angels promptly whisked her soul off to heaven. The story concludes with Mary, Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the 12 apostles and others heading to the hospital and honoring her body.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

2,000-year-old Holy Thorn Tree of Glastonbury Cut Down By Vandals

Sticking up out of the English countryside like a big geological lump stands Glastonbury Tor, a high, oblong hill that can be seen for miles. At one time, it was an island, but the sea has receded, leaving this strange geographical sight. It has been identified over the centuries as the mythical Isle of Avalon of King Arthur’s time. What makes Glastonbury such a startling sight today is the ruined entryway of the abbey’s tower that sits at the top of the knoll.

The source of the belief that that Glastonbury could be the location of the Holy Grail is in the legend of Joseph of Arimathea. Christians in Britain have long told the legend that Joseph came to the island shortly after Christ’s ascension, and that he and his fellow travelers founded the monastery at Glastonbury. The tale goes that he was accompanied by the Bethany sisters Mary and Martha, Lazarus, Mary Magdalene and others followers. A variation of the tale is that Joseph even brought the teenaged Jesus to Britain even before he began his ministry. Of course, much of this legend may have had more to do with claiming that Christianity was alive in Britain long before the Roman Catholic Church was established, as part of the British feud between Catholics and Protestants, than it did with history.

Today, the Daily Mail reports that vandals have destroyed a site of pilgrimage at Glastonbury, one of the most important Christian sites in Britain—a tree that legendarily sprung from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, 2000 years ago:

The Holy Thorn Tree of Glastonbury, Somerset, is visited by thousands every year to pay homage and leave tokens of worship. Those visiting today were moved to tears on finding the tree cut to a stump.

The sacred tree is unique in that it blossoms twice a year - at Christmas and Easter - and sprigs taken from the thorn are sent to The Queen each year for the festive table.


Christian legend dictates that Jesus's great uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, came to Britain after the crucifixion 2,000 years ago bearing the Holy Grail - the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper.

He visited Glastonbury and thrust his staff into Wearyall Hill, just below the Tor, planting a seed for the original thorn tree.
Roundheads felled the tree during the English Civil War, when forces led by Oliver Cromwell (pictured) waged a vicious battle against the Crown.

However, locals salvaged the roots of the original tree, hiding it in secret locations around Glastonbury.
It was then replanted on the hill in 1951. Other cuttings were also grown and placed around the town - including its famous Glastonbury Abbey.

Experts had verified that the tree - known as the Crategus Monogyna Bi Flora - originated from the Middle East.

A sprig of holy thorns was taken from the Thorn tree by Glastonbury's St Johns Church on Wednesday and sent to the Queen.
The 100-year-old tradition will see the thorns sit on Her Majesty's dinner table on Christmas Day.

In 1190 A.D., after a fire that consumed the abbey at Glastonbury, two massive oak coffins were discovered buried below the ruins, with the inscription Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia (“Here lies King Arthur in the island of Avalon”). Since that time, many have believed that the remains really were King Arthur and his wife Guinevere.

As you might expect, there is a Holy Grail associated with Glastonbury. Known as the Nanteos Cup, it is a bowl, said to have been made of olive wood. For many years it was in the care of the Nanteos family, but is now in a museum in the Welsh village of Aberystwyth. True believers have drunk healing water from the cup over the centuries, some going so far as to nibble bits of wood from its edge. As a result, little is left of it today.

The Welsh Commisioner of Monuments has said that the artifact is, in actuality, made of Witch Elm wood, and is actually a bowl from the 1400s. Others believe it to be the genuine grail brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea.