The Mother of the Mother of the Virgin Mary


On Religion

Sixteenth-century icon depicting Emerentia, Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary, and the infant Jesus Christ. Held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

“Saint who?” I asked. “Eh-meh-ren-tsya,” Olga Tokarczuk repeated. Saint Anne’s mother. I was nonplussed. The mother of the mother of the Virgin Mary? Tokarczuk blew out cigarette smoke at high speed, then inhaled with excitement and impatience. I needed a lesson.

We were midway through a nine-hour-long exchange about her life and writing, the edited version of which you can read in the Review’s Spring issue. Throughout our conversation, I often felt that, like her books, Tokarczuk’s speech requires footnotes and annotations.

Tokarczuk researches her short stories and novels with academic intensity. She digs up forgotten, esoteric myths and legends and shows how this esoterica is woven into the warp and woof of European culture. Beneath a Europe of rational, religious, racial, and ethnic dogmatisms, she unveils a continent  rife with ethnically and linguistically syncretic visionaries, mystics, and half-pagan storytellers. There is a hopefulness to these counterhistories that puts its faith in humanity’s capacity for creativity and imagination—in the loosening and intermingling of top-down stereotypes and norms by collective acts of retelling and elaboration. Emerentia, Tokarczuk explained to me, was one such esoteric discovery that she wove into her latest novel, Empuzjon, which has yet to appear in English.

I was raised a devout Catholic, and in my early teens I kept a book of saints by my bedside, arranged in the pages from January to December following the order of their feast days. Each evening, I would read the day’s entry before going to bed, committing the saints’ names to memory. Saint Scholastica, after whom the family elders named one of my great-aunts, was Saint Benedict’s sister. Saint Perpetua, the ancient Roman martyr tortured by Septimus Severus’s henchmen in the Colosseum; Saint Audifax, a Persian protector of early Christian converts about whom so little is known that he was taken off the official roster of holy days shortly after the publication of my hagiographic compendium. And yet I’d never heard of the saint who Poles call Emerencja, and English speakers Emerentia—a figure as important as the great-grandmother of Jesus himself.

Unlike me, Tokarczuk didn’t have a particularly religious upbringing. Nor had she encountered Emerentia in a catalogue of saints’ lives; instead, she found the name, whose thread she followed, in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

The character who bears this name in Mann’s novel is one of the waitresses at Hans Castorp’s sanatorium, an older woman with dwarfism. More than five hundred pages pass before anyone addresses her directly. Finally, Mynheer Peeperkorn, the Dionysian lover of Frau Chauchat, rudely demands to know who she is:

“My child … You are small—but what is that to me? On the contrary! I take it as something positive. I thank God you are the way you are, and that by your smallness, which betrays such character—well, fine. What I desire from you is likewise small, small and full of character. But first, what is your name?” She smiled and stammered and finally said that her name was Emerentia.

The drunken Peeperkorn plays with Emerentia’s name, splitting it into two potential nicknames: Rentia and Emchen. He then requests from “Emchen … Emerenzchen,” something “so small but full of character—a gin, my love!” “Einen Genever, echt,” Emerentia responds to show that she has understood. These are the only three words Mann’s narrator has her utter directly.

Not many readers notice Emerentia in the middle of this bustling dinner scene, whose members soon become even more inebriated and philosophical. The few Mann scholars who have written about this waitress describe her diminutive size as a metaphor for Peeperkorn’s ability to dominate women. That explanation did not satisfy Tokarczuk. The name itself intrigued her, just as it intrigued Peeperkorn and presumably also Mann: one does not name a character Emerentia offhandedly.

Tokarczuk went hunting for Emerentia’s namesakes. She searched for them online, in libraries, in Thomas Mann’s unpublished letters and archives. As many of her searches came up empty, she realized that few historical women have ever borne that name. Most of the ones who did, including a distant relative of Mann’s, adopted it upon receiving monastic orders. Emerentias tended to hail from the Netherlands or from some of the regions neighboring Tokarczuk’s native Silesia, including Bavaria. Tokarczuk began to discover religious artworks from these regions depicting an older woman bearing that name.

The story of this saint, Tokarczuk realized, is deep in some ways but in others quite shallow. Emerentia is less a name than an attribute. A Latin adjective that means meritorious, it could certainly not have literally been the name of an Aramaic-speaking Galilean woman. The tradition of worshipping Emerentia turns out to be relatively recent, and a blip: dating back to the fifteenth century, it all but disappears a hundred years later. Nowhere to be found in early Christian apocrypha, Emerentia is first named in the Flemish Peter van Diest’s fifteenth-century life of Jesus. News of her spread from Flanders to Burgundy and Germany through the works of Jodocus van Asche Badius, a Flemish writer residing in Paris, and of Johann Maier von Eck, a German Catholic prelate known for his quarrels with Martin Luther.

A relatively straightforward theological and political explanation can be found for Emerentia’s sudden appearance on the eve of the Reformation—as well as for her subsequent obsolescence. The fifteenth century witnessed the culmination of a centuries-long debate over the way the Virgin Mary was conceived by her parents. This debate has its roots in the second-century apocryphal Gospel of James, a collection of stories attributed to the apostle James that did not end up entering the biblical canon. This unauthorized gospel mentions in passing that God had allowed Mary’s mother, Anne, who was barren, to conceive Mary without sexual intercourse.

One might be tempted to shrug away this tale as an error of repetition, a calque of Mary’s own story onto her mother. However, in the twelfth century, this possibility—and its significance or insignificance for Catholic doctrine—became a subject of vehement, lingering debate. Catholic theologians had long established that Mary herself was a virgin, but could virgin birth have run in her family? Behind this funny-sounding question lay a deeper worry about the moral purity of Mary’s body: Could the flesh that bore the Messiah have required something as sinful as lust for its conception? In 1477, the idea that Mary had not been tainted by humanity’s original sin won out: the Pope established a feast to celebrate Mary’s Immaculate Conception inside Anne’s womb. By that point, theologians were using the term immaculate to describe Mary’s freedom from sin in a much more abstract, mystical sense; still, in many people’s minds, Mary’s purity remained literally contingent on her ancestors’ sexual conduct. For these more literal-minded believers, the papal decree thus opened a new possibility—of a sequence of Jesus’s women ancestors who also might have procreated without men.

Tokarczuk found out these historical facts, and others. But as she examined paintings and sculptures of Emerentia, she realized that Mann’s interest in her could not be explained by theology alone. Few depictions of Emerentia exist, and  those that do tend toward the bizarre as they attempt to explain visually the matrilineal logic that made her relevant to churchgoers. Like figures in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Emerentia and those around her seem chimerical, caught midtransformation into a tree, a dog, a mountain. These metaphors for nonsexual human reproduction rapidly exceed their immediate theological purpose, embedding Emerentia in a surprisingly pagan-seeming, matriarchal framework.

One fifteenth-century painting, commissioned by the Carmelites, who were major proponents of the idea that Mary was immaculately conceived, and painted by the Flemish Master Johannes, represents Emerentia as the bottom of a literal family tree. Titled Vision of the Descent of Saint Emerentia at Mount Carmel and currently held at the Museo Lázaro Galdiano in Madrid, it depicts Emerentia on all fours at the center of the image. She has just given birth. The belt tied around her waist—or is it an umbilical cord?—begins to transform into the root of a plant; this plant rises into the air through Emerentia’s lower back. This tree produces one large, ornate blue flower, which spreads in the middle of the painting to seat a middle-aged Saint Anne holding a small, apparently teenage Virgin Mary. Mary has her hand wrapped around the stalk, which continues to climb through her heart and above her head. Crowned by a flower high above Anne’s and Mary’s heads, the plant hoists up a childlike Jesus with a cross already slung over his shoulder. In a more recent icon Tokarczuk showed me—which she believes was made in imitation of an older, Greek Orthodox predecessor—Emerentia is a giantess who towers over a regular-size Saint Anne, who in turn holds a diminutive Mary, in whose hands we see an even smaller baby Jesus. Nested inside each other, they resemble a set of matryoshka dolls.

A miracle does seem to be happening in these artworks, but of a different sort than the one declared by the Pope. A hair-splittingly dogmatic theological debate about how God could have become human without becoming sinful gives rise to fantasies about women’s reproductive self-sufficiency. Gigantic, matronly, and protective—and magical-seeming—Emerentia does not merely assert the possibility of a virginal birth or two. She heads an alternative, matriarchic holy family with Emerentia-like matrons all the way down. Carried away by the idea of her, these late medieval painters inadvertently transform Catholic doctrine into something that looks more like pagan worship of an omnipotent Earth Mother. Or perhaps Emerentia awakens a somnolent matriarchal impulse within Christianity itself.

Self-sacrificing and nurturing, in some ways Emerentia seems like an apt namesake for Peeperkorn’s waitress. But in most other ways, Saint Emerentia and Emerentia the waitress are complete opposites. Peeperkorn dominates Emerentia in The Magic Mountain; by contrast, Saint Emerentia tends to tower over all the other figures in the icons and sculptures that feature her, whether by virtue of standing on an elevation—as in a sixteenth-century depiction made in Hildesheim, now housed at the Met—or by virtue of her preternaturally great physical size.

This giant matriarchic Emerentia must have terrified Mann, Tokarczuk speculated when we spoke, to the point of his needing to humiliate her in body and mind alike. Emerentia represents a world that The Magic Mountain cannot let into itself: a world in which crises of masculinity, and of masculine creativity in particular, are not an existential concern. These alternatives to patriarchy seem to have quietly coexisted for centuries with the male-centric world whose passing Mann fears. And yet paradoxically, in humiliating Emerentia, Mann brought her back to life, back into circulation, so that Tokarczuk could discover her and, in her novel Empuzjon, write a new version of The Magic Mountain with Emerentia and her daughters at its center.

Walter Benjamin once told Ernst Bloch a Hasidic story about what the world would look like when the Messiah came: “Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” That is how I felt going back to The Magic Mountain, and to the chapel near Tokarczuk’s village, with thoughts of Emerentia buzzing in my head. And that is also the feeling, eerie as well as hopeful, with which Tokarczuk leaves her readers. At any moment, an unexpected presence from our collective past might appear before us. Once we notice this presence, everything changes. The change is small, but its impact feels enormous.


Marta Figlerowicz is an associate professor of comparative literature and English at Yale University. She interviewed Olga Tokarczuk for the Spring 2023 issue of the Review.