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Cover for the book Mary’s Mother

Mary’s Mother

Saint Anne in Late Medieval Europe Virginia Nixon
  • Copyright: 2005
  • Dimensions: 6 x 9
  • Page Count: 232 pages
  • Illustrations: 40 b&w illustrations
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-02466-0
  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-271-05812-2
“This fascinating book traces the explosive growth of devotion to Saint Anne in the late Middle Ages. Nixon deftly shows how educated clerics promoted Saint Anne in order to exercise control over lay piety for religious, economic, and social ends. The changes in Anne's image and the meteoric rise and decline of her cult reflect the success of this program and a shift in attitudes about the sexual and social role of married women. Mary's Mother is wonderfully clear, engagingly written, and solidly researched—a pleasure to read.”
Mary's Mother is a masterful study of a neglected dimension of late medieval devotion.”
“Nixon's study is illuminating as a study of the cult of sainthood, in its economic in addition to its social and salvific aspects.”
“Judging by the vast amount of detailed, well-researched information provided in this book, it would appear that this subject simply begs to be discussed further.”
“A riveting collection of art through history is presented.”
“This is a beautifully produced book; there are thirty-six black-and-white illustrations taken from the wealth of paintings of St. Anne executed in northern Europe between 1400 and 1500. . . . Both the bibliography and the thirty-one pages of notes provide a useful source for modern discussions of the cult of St. Anne.”
“The book is highly readable, and Nixon demonstrates a facility for letting her subjects speak for themselves, thereby bringing the world of premodern devotion to life.”
“A book with appeal to generalists as well as specialists, Mary’s Mother should find readers in religious studies and history as well as art history and hagiography. Its strength lies in meticulous documentation and careful situating of material objects in socio-cultural context.”
“This book is clearly written, enjoyable to read, and is very informative. Nixon delved into primary sources, some previously unpublished, in order to shed light upon the importance of the cult of St. Anne to late medieval Christians, especially in the Germanic areas of Europe, and the function of images in that practice. This study is definitely recommended to anyone interested in the ways in which St. Anne was used and understood in Germany and surrounding areas in the late Middle Ages.”

Saint Anne, the mother of Mary, is not a biblical figure. She first appears in a second-century apocryphal infancy gospel as part of the story of the savior’s birth and maternal ancestry. Over the ensuing centuries, Anne’s story circulated throughout eastern and western Christendom, but it was not until the late Middle Ages that a cult of Saint Anne gained a firm footing in Europe. Mary’s Mother is about the remarkable rise of Anne as a figure of devotion among medieval Christians who found solace in her closeness to Jesus and Mary.

Anne’s popularity grew especially in German-speaking areas, so much so that by the late 1400s artists in Germany, Flanders, and Holland were busy producing all manner of sculptures, prints, and paintings of her. Anne’s power derived from her physical connection to the Redeemer and his mother, a connection that artists emphasized in works that depicted her. In the most widely reproduced trope, known as Anna Selbdritt, Anne is depicted as a matronly woman presiding over Mary and Jesus, who both appear as children.

Clerics played a crucial role in fostering Anne’s growing popularity. They promoted her as having power to help in salvation, a matter of urgent concern to late medieval German Christians. Churches and convents (and rulers too) adopted her as a fundraising device in an increasingly competitive ecclesiastical landscape. Churches, shrines, and altars were dedicated to her, lay brotherhoods adopted her as their patroness, and many families named their daughters for her.

Anne’s clerical promoters frequently used her as a model of sober domesticity for women, part of a broader attempt to channel the growing lay piety that the clergy perceived as a potential threat to their own power and incomes. And yet, as a gender model, she embodied conflicts between medieval and early modern ideas about sanctity and sexuality. Devotion to Anne gradually declined in the 1500s as medieval modes of religious practice and ideas about women’s place in family life began to change.

Today many Catholics know Saint Anne as the mother of the Blessed Virgin and the protector of women in labor, but few know how she came to be a figure of devotion. Mary’s Mother brings her story to life for general readers as well as scholars and students of history, art history, religious studies, and women’s studies.

Virginia Nixon teaches Art History in the Liberal Arts College of Concordia University, Montreal.


List of Illustrations

Preface and Acknowledgments


1. The Early History of the Cult of Saint Anne

2. Changes in the Late Fifteenth Century

3. Saint Anne and Concepts of Salvation in Late Medieval Germany

4. Salvational Themes in the Imagery of Saint Anne

5. Anne's Promoters: Why Did They Do It?

6. Economic Factors and the Cult of Saint Anne: Augsburg and Annaberg

7. Functions and Perceptions: How People Used Images

8. Anne's Decline

9. The Images



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Signs of Devotion

The Cult of St. Æthelthryth in Medieval England, 695–1615