The Holy Kinship

South German 15th Century (Swabian or Franconian)c. 1480 - 1490

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

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.

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  • Title: The Holy Kinship
  • Date Created: c. 1480 - 1490
  • Physical Dimensions: w1125 x h1280 x d270 cm (overall)
  • Type: Sculpture
  • Rights: Patrons' Permanent Fund
  • External Link: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
  • Medium: polychromed wood
  • sculptor: South German 15th Century (Swabian or Franconian)
  • Theme: religious
  • School: Swabian
  • Provenance: Probably the Cistercian convent of Kirchheim, near Nordlingen. Princes zu Oettingen Wallerstein, Schloss Wallerstein, since the early 19th century;[1] purchased 7 February 2002 through (Alexander Rudigier, Munich) by NGA. [1] The convent of Kirchheim was closely connected with the Oettingen Wallersteins, who had a crypt there in the 14th century. In the wake of secularisation during Napoleon's reorganization of Germany, the princely house received seven convents, including Kirchheim, together with all their possessions in compensation for lost territory on the left bank of the Rhine. The then prince, Ludwig, was one of the very earliest collectors of medieval art, and he seized this opportunity to secure everything of artistic value from the convents which had been transferred to him. Some of his collection of paintings now forms part of the core of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, and other parts of his painting collection are at Hampton Court in England. The Holy Kinship was intended by Prince Ludwig for the main altar of the chapel of Saint Anne at Schloss Wallerstein, and he commissioned the neo Gothic retable from which it was separated at the end of the 20th century. (Information provided by Alexander Rudigier, in NGA curatorial files)