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The legend of St. Ismeria marks a shift in belief, as sanctity was previously more often earned by blood martyrdom rather than piety.
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updated 12/9/2010 12:00:59 PM ET 2010-12-09T17:00:59

The great grandmother of Jesus was a woman named Ismeria, according to Florentine medieval manuscripts analyzed by a historian.

The legend of St. Ismeria, presented in the current Journal of Medieval History, sheds light on both the Biblical Virgin Mary's family and also on religious and cultural values of 14th-century Florence.

"I don't think any other woman is mentioned" as Mary's grandmother in the Bible, Catherine Lawless, author of the paper, told Discovery News. "Mary's patrilineal lineage is the only one given."

"Mary herself is mentioned very little in the Bible," added Lawless, a lecturer in history at the University of Limerick. "The huge Marian cult that has evolved over centuries has very few scriptural sources."

Lawless studied the St. Ismeria story, which she said has been "ignored by scholars," in two manuscripts: the 14th century "MS Panciatichiano 40" of Florence's National Central Library and the 15th century "MS 1052" of the Riccardiana Library, also in Florence.

"According to the legend, Ismeria is the daughter of Nabon of the people of Judea, and of the tribe of King David," wrote Lawless. She married "Santo Liseo," who is described as "a patriarch of the people of God." The legend continues that the couple had a daughter named Anne who married Joachim. After 12 years, Liseo died. Relatives then left Ismeria penniless.

"I'm pretty sure one is supposed to believe that it was either her dead husband's relatives or, less likely, her natal family," Lawless said. "The family of the Virgin Mary would not have been cast in such a light."

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Ismeria then goes to a hospital where she finds refuge. She is said to perform a miracle, filling a shell with fish to feed all of the hospital's patients. After this miracle she prays to be taken away from the "vainglory of this world."

After God called her to "Paradise," a rector at the hospital informed the Virgin Mary and Jesus of her passing. They departed for the hospital with the 12 Apostles, Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary Cleophas. There they paid honor to St. Ismeria.

The legend marks a shift in belief, as sanctity was previously more often earned by blood martyrdom rather than piety. Lawless credits that, in part, to the rise in the belief of Purgatory, an interim space between heaven and hell where sins could be purged.

"The more sins purged in one's lifetime (through penitence, good works, etc.) the less time needed in purgatory — for either oneself or one's family," she said.

She also pointed out that "the great bulk of Christian martyrs of the west died under the Roman persecutions, which ended in the fourth century."

While the author of the Ismeria legend remains unknown, Lawless thinks it could have been a layperson from Tuscany. During the medieval period, "the story may have been used as a model for continent wifehood and active, charitable widowhood in one of the many hospitals of medieval Florence."

"The grandmother of the Virgin was no widow who threatened the patrimony of her children by demanding the return of her dowry, nor did she threaten the family unit by remarrying and starting another lineage," she added. "Instead, her life could be seen as an ideal model for Florentine penitential women."

George Ferzoco, a research fellow at the University of Bristol, commented that the new paper analyzing the legend is "brilliant" and "reveals an exciting trove of religious material from late medieval and renaissance Florence, where many manuscripts were written specifically for females."

"What is so striking about St. Ismeria," Carolyn Muessig of the University of Bristol's Department of Theology and Religious Studies told Discovery News, "is that she is a model for older matrons. Let's face it: Older female role models are hard to come by in any culture."

"But the fact that St. Ismeria came to the fore in late medieval Florence," Muessig concluded, "reveals some of the more positive attitudes that medieval culture had towards the place and the importance of women in society."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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