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.

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