Grandmothers and grandchildren

Grandmothers and grandchildren
1603. «The Birth of the Virgin». Juan Pantoja de la Cruz. © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (Spain)

Grandmothers and grandchildren

The most famous ladies of the Casa de Austria re-enact this «Birth of the Virgin» on Pantoja’s canvas: queen Margaret of Austria (1584-1611) plays the role of the parturient woman, assisted by her two sisters and her mother, Maria Anna de Bavaria, archduchess of Austria-Styria. Queen Margarita herself commissioned the painting after giving birth to a girl named Mary in 1603. The event took place in a palace in Valladolid and none of the queen’s kin was present there. Thus, the painting testifies to a desire for family union around parturition. It is a fiction of female collaboration projected onto a religious theme.

However, despite great distance between them, aristocratic grandmothers got involved in the birth-matters of their daughters married to foreign courts. As for Maria Anna, she did it in the most resolute way: She intervened in the selection and hiring of midwives, advised her daughters in her letters about the least dangerous and painful birthing position and was godmother to her granddaughters, to whom she had also bequeathed her Christian names.

When her daughter Ana, queen of Poland, died during birth in 1598, the archduchess demanded precise accounts of the circumstances, about the boy extracted from the womb of this deceased mother, about the baptism urgently administered to the creature and the burial of mother and son in the cathedral of Cracow.

Maria Anna’s authority no doubt stemmed from her own fecundity and from what she had learned giving birth to 15 children in 18 years of marriage (and some months of widowhood as the last one was born after his father’s death). A contemporary chronicler emphasizes the fact that the charitable aristocrat even assisted her ladies-in-waiting at the court of Graz during their deliveries.

The well-documented life of Maria Anna offers a magnified picture of the weight and influence exercised by elder women in general: mothers, mothers-in-law, aunts, grandmothers. By supervising birth, they steered and ruled the destinies of families. [Wolfram Aichinger]