Cover image for Mary’s Mother: Saint Anne in Late Medieval Europe By Virginia Nixon

Mary’s Mother

Saint Anne in Late Medieval Europe

Virginia Nixon


$56.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02466-0

$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05812-2

232 pages
6" × 9"
40 b&w illustrations

Mary’s Mother

Saint Anne in Late Medieval Europe

Virginia Nixon

“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.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
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.

“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.”

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




In the late 1400s and early 1500s artists in Northern Europe produced an extraordinary body of paintings, sculptures and prints depicting Mary’s mother Saint Anne. Responding to the demand created by the unprecedented popularity Anne enjoyed in the decades between 1470 and 1530, artists outdid one another in ingenuity of composition and richness of iconographic detail. The subject certainly provided scope for detail and ingenuity, for medieval writers gave Anne not one, but three husbands, and not one, but three daughters—all named Mary. Anne’s daughters produced a formidable progeny that included, along with the Saviour, five apostles and a disciple, plus John the Baptist and the early Rheinland bishops Servatius and Maternus. Sculptors, painters and printmakers in Germany, Flanders and Holland depicted these family groupings, whether the larger Holy Kinship group or Saint Anne holding Mary and Jesus, with the realism and luxuriance that marked the genius of the late gothic art of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the toys, clothing and other accoutrements of the comfortably-off urban middle-classes rubbing shoulders with subtle nuances of theological meaning. Images of a similar type were produced in other parts of Europe too, in particular Poland, Bohemia and Scandinavia, and to a lesser degree France, Spain and Italy. However the much greater production of images in the Germanic-speaking areas and the fact that the cult in these regions formed a cohesive phenomenon, renders them a logical choice for investigation.

The different compositional formats of the images made different statements about the role of Saint Anne in the redemptive drama that forms the heart of Christian belief. In a Tilman Rimenschneider sculpture completed between 1490 and 1495, now in the Mainfränkisches Museum in Würzburg, a pensive Saint Anne extends one arm to loosely encircle her daughter, shown as a child of about ten, seated on her left knee, while her other hand supports the muscular Christ Child standing on her right knee (fig. 1). Mary’s motherhood is alluded to in the visible presence of breasts in her childish figure, but her age and miniaturization subordinate her to the enveloping presence of Anne, who seems to be presented as the physical source of both Mary and Jesus. The composition of an Anna Selbdritt carved for the convent of Sankt Johannes Gnadenthal in Ingolstadt by Hans Leinberger in 1513 makes a different statement (fig. 2). Seated on a bench, Mary and Anne share the child between them. Anne is shown not as dominating Mary but as equal with her in her relationship with the Christ Child, for the child’s body is in contact with both women.

<comp: insert figs. 1 & 2 approximately here>

Surprisingly, though there are fine examples in North American museums, the Anna Selbdritt, as the depiction of Anne with Mary and Jesus is called in German, and the Holy Kinship are not well-known outside Germany. They rarely appear in survey or general art history works. Indeed German art itself is neglected in English language art historical publishing. Ironically the most widely reproduced version of the Anna Selbdritt is an atypical Italian reworking of this Northern compositional schema—Leonardo’s Saint Anne, the Virgin and Child (fig. 3).

<comp: insert fig. 3 approximately here>

Along with their considerable visual appeal, the Anna Selbdritts present some curious compositional features. Why do they so frequently disregard normal chronology and depict Mary as a child? Why are both Mary and Jesus so often miniaturized in comparison with the oversize proportions of Saint Anne? Why do Mary and Anne not look directly at Jesus? Why are the husbands and fathers in so many Holy Kinships placed behind the women, often separated from them by the physical barrier of a low wall? And why did artists in Northern Europe produce such enormous quantities of these works during the relatively short period between 1480 and 1530?

When I began to ask these questions I found that the existing literature on Saint Anne did not adequately answer them. The most frequently encountered explanations, that the Anna Selbdritt depicted the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and that the late medieval expansion of Anne’s cult was the result of popular devotional enthusiasm, explained very little, and in any case were supported neither by evidence nor methodological rigour. The foundational studies of the cult and imagery of Saint Anne by E. Schaumkell, Paul-Victor Charland and Beda Kleinschmidt all date from before the Second World War, and though they correctly connect the late fifteenth-century flowering of the cult with the contemporaneous publication of the new lives of Saint Anne written by Northern humanists, their findings must be treated with caution, for methodology is inconsistent and conclusions are sometimes drawn from extremely modest quantities of data. Subsequent articles on individual Anna Selbdritts shed little light on the circumstances of the cult’s expansion as they tended by and large to accept Kleinschmidt’s association with the Immaculate Conception.

In the 1980s a new generation of scholars working simultaneously but independently in Germany, Holland, and the United States turned their attention to Saint Anne. The North American researchers were interested in new questions and approaches generated by women’s studies, cultural, and interdisciplinary studies. The variety of these approaches and the wide range of themes discernible in the cult of Saint Anne are illustrated in the conference papers published in 1990 in Interpreting Cultural Symbols edited by Kathleen Ashley and Pamela Sheingorn. Around the same time that these papers were being written in the United States, a handful of European scholars were embarking on more comprehensive examinations of Saint Anne’s cult oriented in some cases towards systematic study of groups of images, in other cases towards the late medieval texts connected with the cult. In 1986 Werner Esser completed a dissertation on the Holy Kinship which proposed a genealogy of the image type and began the work of establishing a geographical typology. In 1990 Ton Brandenbarg published Heilig Familieleven which analyzes seventeen late fifteenth-century Netherlandish and Rheinland German lives of Saint Anne and explains their role in the carefully orchestrated promotion of Anne’s cult carried out by networks of humanists and reforming clerics in these regions. In Amsterdam Willemien Deeleman-van Tyen catalogued Dutch sculptures of the Anna Selbdritt, while in Passau Bernadette Mangold did the same for Lower Bavarian examples and Peter Paul Maniurka for those produced in Silesia. In Germany Angelika Dörfler-Dierken’s two 1992 books, on the lay confraternities dedicated to Saint Anne and on the numerous texts connected with her cult, with their systematic compilations of source information, form a contribution of enormous value. Many of these projects, as well as the present work, made use of data on Saint Anne collected by the Bonn Volkskunde scholar, the late Matthias Zender.

This book draws on the work of all these scholars, though it differs from theirs in that it asks and answers different questions. It began as a study of the works of art. But as these can only be understood by examining the texts and records that speak to us about how Saint Anne was used and understood in the late middle ages, this is as well a book on the history of religion, and given the role of religion in the middle ages, a book about history. It is also a book about people. A good deal of space is given to listening to what people of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries had to say about the saints and images that played such a large role in their lives. I am interested in what they did with images, what they felt them to be, and how they perceived them. The listening is done attentively, with an awareness of the slipperiness of language, but with an appreciation too of the fact that the deferral of signification does not decrease the potential of texts for releasing or generating meaning; it increases it—problematic though the task of extricating that meaning may be.

The arguments in this study group themselves into four clusters. One group addresses the extraordinary success of the cult of Saint Anne, arguing that her clerical and humanist promoters saw her cult as a means for controlling lay, especially female piety, and that they built on—and encouraged—anxiety about salvation to do so. I show that they created for Saint Anne a new image as a saint who had power not merely to intercede like other saints, but to actually assist her devotees in getting into heaven. In the liturgical offices and lives they wrote, Saint Anne is used to simultaneously arouse and assuage salvation anxiety. Not only is this power evident in contemporary texts, I argue as well that her role in the economy of salvation is alluded to in the compositional formats and iconography of the art works depicting her.

Another set of arguments looks at economic factors in the spread of the cult. Church institutions were suffering financial stresses in some late medieval cities, and I show that the spread of late medieval saints’ cults sometimes had less to do with popular piety than with the economics of staying alive—for clerics—in an increasingly competitive ecclesiastical landscape. Beautiful art works, powerful relics, attractive confraternities, and generous indulgences, all brought people into churches, stimulated donations and encouraged endowments, and the cult of Saint Anne was bound up with all four.

A third group of arguments has to do with the numerous points at which the Saint Anne cult intersects with ideas about female sexual and social behaviour. Brandenbarg has shown how new models of middle class marriage were incorporated into the new Anne lives, and Dörfler-Dierken has demonstrated that the new writing embodies new ideas about sancitifed marriage. I propose that in addition the Anne texts continued to express long-standing perceptions of the incompatibility of sexual activity and holiness. It is an index of the richness of the cult that all three interpretations are compatible.

Finally, an important section of the book proposes a model of how late medieval Christians used and perceived images. I argue that medieval Germany was a culture in which power was more readily ascribed to objects, and images more easily conflated with their referents, than was the case for example in England and Holland, where images were more likely to be perceived as representing rather than embodying their referents. Not only do contemporary speakers reveal, sometimes at length, their feelings about images, but texts and images often contain inadvertent betrayals of responses to images. The predilection to conflate the image with what it represented had important ramifications for the creation, use, and as it came to be seen, abuse of images in Germany in the late medieval period.

One of the achievements of Brandenbarg’s work was the dispelling of the idea that devotion to Saint Anne arose out of popular enthusiasm. My own study of late medieval German images and texts leads me to agree with him, and to conclude, as Peter Brown did for the Early Christian cult of the saints, that the distinctive, and to modern eyes magical characteristics that mark some expressions of medieval religious practice, are not expressions of the unlettered, or survivals of pagan practices, but are evident at all levels, and indeed were propagated in writings and practises produced and encouraged at elite, educated levels of society.

A fundamental assumption in the shaping of this book is the view that art works are not transcendental objects with mysterious powers. Works of art, both works of genius and ones of more modest achievement, as well as being art objects are social artifacts whose operations and means of signifying can be analyzed and to a certain extent understood. At the same time I am all too aware of the ease with which present conceptions can be imposed on the past. In particular I have been cautious not to apply nineteenth and twentieth-century ideas of what constitutes piety, or the lack of it, in assessing fifteenth-century religious practice. As Lynn Hunt has pointed out, subjectivity and the self are not timeless and unchanging; they have histories. I have tried to remember too that the people who lived in the midst of the discourses of the Reformation and of the Immaculate Conception did not “see” these laid out in the orderly formulations that modern historians are able to construct; living within events creates different, often multiple, sometimes conflicting, perspectives for the individuals involved. I would also emphasize the fact that the relationship of a work of art to its culture is not a simple case of the one being influenced by the other. A work of art is best understood not by setting it against its cultural or historical backgrounds, but by looking at it as part of the dialectics of its culture.

In the same way that the written word can yield information, so too can the repeating and changing patterns and correspondences in images. In pictures and sculptures, in texts, and in human actions, the presence or absence of themes and motifs, emphases, overdeterminations and omissions, are clues that provide points of entry for investigations into how people thought and felt. At the same time it is crucial to remember that structural analysis reveals patterns, not answers. Never self-evident, the meaning of the patterns uncovered must be sought with the aid of additional tools and data and supported with concrete evidence.

A final question for the researcher seeking to understand the language of medieval art works concerns the relationships between images and texts. It is doubtful that a clear set of guidelines can be drawn up that will apply to all cases, for images are neither visual descriptions of reality nor are they simple reflections of texts. Textual sources can be found for many of the motifs in the imagery of Saint Anne, but not infrequently a search produces multiple texts with varying, even contradictory meanings. In any case art works have their own history, with its own patterns, rhythms, and lines of descent. Habit, convention, even misunderstandings on the part of artists and patrons, help shape iconography, and artists draw on traditions of past images as well as on present discourses. In some cases compositional features seem related to underlying traits of the culture that produced them: the fact that the realism in Dutch Anna- te-Drieens is consistent with the realism in the Dutch Anne texts suggests something important about Dutch culture. On the other hand an iconographic or stylistic feature may simply reflect the availability of a model, the inspiration of a gifted individual, or the preference of a patron. The fact that Swabian compositions dominate Saxon images may have to do with the fact that the Saxon artists, who had less in the way of a tradition of their own to draw on, simply had access to a plentiful supply of Swabian prints.

Different forms of expression were created, paid for, and used by different groups, and while images and texts are closely related they do not speak in parallel voices. Sometimes they seem to contest one another: at the same time that the painted and sculpted Anna Selbdritts and Holy Kinships embody images of female power, lives of Anne urge docility and restraint in women’s behaviour. Why are they not telling the same story? This book hopes to show that an examination of images and texts of different kinds, intertwined as separate parts of an overall discourse, can be, if not definitive in its conclusions, richly, and often unexpectedly revealing.

The book’s plan is as follows. Beginning with an account of the origins and early history of the devotion to Saint Anne, it introduces the late medieval flowering of her cult through the activities of particular individuals: a patron commissions an image; a priest promotes devotion at a local level; a prominent humanist writes a book that helps spread the cult at an international level; a pilgrim visits a site where a famed healing relic is displayed; a theologian reminisces. Chapters Three and Four examine the motives and methods of the cult’s promoters, in particular their desire to channel lay piety, their interest in presenting Anne as a model of restrained sexual and social behaviour for women, and their strategy for presenting her as a salvational helper. Chapter Five analyzes the salvational content in the composition and iconography of the images. Chapter Six shows how Saint Anne’s cult, and by extension other saints’ cults, played important economic roles in some late medieval cities, looking in particular at Augsburg and Annaberg, the new silver mining town named after Anne in the Saxon Erzgebirge. Chapter Seven looks at what people did with and thought about images of Anne and other saints. Chapter Eight returns to Saint Anne herself, showing how early modern ideas about gender, family relations, and the nature of mankind’s relationship with God, coincided with major changes in the imagery of Saint Anne as she began to lose her special powers to become a mere, if saintly, grandmother. The final chapter describes the images of Saint Anne and proposes interpretations of some of their iconography.

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