Meeting of Joachim and Anna at the Golden Gate, circa 1510-1520, Hans Von Kulmbach (German, circa 1485-1522), oil on panel, BF 871
If you are like me, you do not know who Von Kulmbach is; before I did some informal research recently, I only knew him from this one painting at the Barnes Foundation. It turns out however, that I do know his last teacher: Albrecht Durer, the famous Northern Renaissance master. And after Durer stopped taking commissions for altarpieces in his later years – I suppose he’d become well-off enough to have the luxury of avoiding the “moneymakers” – they went to the disciple Von Kulmbach.
The painting I’ll write a few words about (title above) is, according to scholars, most likely from one of those altarpieces. Some think it may have been an altarpiece with the subject of the Birth of the Virgin, since Joachim and Anna (apocryphally) were the parents of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In this scene, Anna has learned that she, much like Sarah the wife of Abraham, has become pregnant in her old age through the Holy Spirit.
And it is a gorgeous little painting – measuring about 15 inches high by 8 inches wide – which shows off what some say are Von Kulmbach’s signatures: jewel-like colors, and sensitive, evocative faces. Joachim is on the left; Anna has come to emotionally embrace him from the right. They are framed by a stone arch, through which is visible the wheat-colored stone walls of the city, and a summer-clear sky – this is presumably the Golden Gate of the title. Yet they are not fully embracing; Anna looks as if she has learned something emotionally taxing, her lower body is almost overcome and ready to collapse under her blue robe. Joachim’s arms mimic hers in a kind of intertwined spiral, and he is leaning towards her, supporting – or expecting to support – her weight. The colors are predominantly luminous cousins of the primary colors.
The arcs of their bodies towards each other; the heart-shape their heads make almost touching each other in their passion under the arch; the yin-yang spiral their arms and hands create; the bent-ness of Joachim’s boot pointing a line directly through the folds of his salmon-scarlet robe, moving towards and wrapping around Anna and her amazing expression, a line which then continues up through the slanted outer city wall, the arch and the azure sky, and back around: all these elements create a taut, centered feeling to the painting. These are two people who are utterly caught up in each other; in the moment of revelation and sharing: it is an intensely personal scene, as if glimpsed fleetingly by a stranger passing them in a city. And yet what pregnant (no pun intended) emotion is caught by that one scant moment! Much of this can be seen in Anna’s expression, and conversely by Joachim’s absorption and reception of it. The stable mutuality of the relationship shown here is strengthened by the presence of the arch: one of architecture’s most stable structures.
I would not be surprised to learn that (unless he leant such amazing expressions to all his subjects – which could certainly be true) Von Kulmbach was in love with this particular model for Anna. All that an artist might unconsciously include in the careful vagaries of the brush is caught here in the formal elements – and the mystery – which make up the numinous beauty and grace in this woman’s face. You must see it in person to fully appreciate it.
Ironically, though this painting is doubly out of its intended context – both the church and its original companion panels – it is, I think, that much stronger for it. It shines in a way which it would never be able to if it was within the larger, more complex context of an ecclesiastical building; or even the entire Apocryphal story. It is now, in its 20th century American collection context, a prime piece in this “jewel box” of an institution.