February 2 — the “Feast of the Presentation of the Lord,” as it is now titled – always makes me think of Anna. Anna the prophet that is, who appears in the story of the “purification” of the Blessed Virgin Mary forty days after giving birth to Jesus. The Lukan account of this event (Luke 2:22-38) keeps the woman prophet, Anna, silent while putting beautiful words into the mouth of Simeon. These words, known as the “Nunc Dimittis,” became an important part of the liturgical tradition of prayers. The summary description of Anna as giving thanks to God and witnessing to others about this child remain in the background. No specific words of hers are recorded.
But while Anna remains wordless in the Gospel according to Luke, in Christian visual art, she actually begins to speak, either via hand-gestures or via a scroll with words written on it. I discovered one such telling representation of Anna in the recent exhibition of Armenian art and culture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. There, an early fourteenth-century illumination showed Anna making a distinct hand gesture, one that signals acclamation. The artist was drawing on a tradition of an earlier, Graeco-Roman system of hand-gestures that Christian artists had adopted to “speak” their own messages. And this Armenian Anna certainly did speak to me.
But it gets even better: In other depictions of the Presentation in the Temple, Anna actually displays her own words, on an opened scroll (although sometimes the scroll is rolled-up). The words she proclaims vary but all of them are weighty. Think of the one in the fifth-century apse mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore: “Blessed is the womb that bore you.” Or this one from a fifteenth-century Byzantine panel: “This child created heaven and earth.” Sometimes, the scroll identifies Anna too: “The prophet Anna: Thanks be to God,” a fourteenth-century scroll says. [If you are interested in further details, see the wonderful little essay by Jessica Savage over at the Princeton Index of Medieval Art:
I think in honor of the Feast of the Presentation, I will give my picture of the Armenian Anna
some words to say too. I find that Anna the prophet can be very eloquent if we only let her.