Mary's Mother: Saint Anne in Late Medieval Europe
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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.
salvation, late medieval German testators characteristically divided up their religious bequests among a number of different churches and convents. There are other reasons too why she might have chosen Saint Johannes; she undoubtedly knew the convent well, for the Hofmann house was almost next door to it.5 Indeed, because the convent was a favored place for young women of her class, Frau Hofmann likely knew some of the nuns and their families personally. Familiarity, however, may not have been
God and husband on the married woman saint. Whereas in earlier lives of married holy woman, such as that of the fourteenth-century Prussian mystic Dorothea of Montau, the marital relationship was depicted as a hindrance to sanctity, and the husband as a rival to Christ, in the Anne lives it is through the marriage relationship and in loving cooperation with her husbands that Anne lives out her holiness.18 Yet I would add that, at the same time that they introduce this new theological ideal of
van Sint-Anna (Antwerp: Govert Back, 1501). The latter was translated into Latin as the Vita gloriosissime matris Annae christipare virginis Marie genetricis ab ascensio in compendium redacta 12.Nixon_Notes pp.165-196 9/17/04 10:39 AM Page 172 172 Notes to Pages 30–38 ex historia suavissima eiusdem matris Anne ab religiosissimo viro F. dorlando ordinis Carthusiensis in zelem theuthonice prius edita and printed with the Vita Jhesu Christi of Ludolf of Saxony, first in Paris in 1502. In
perish if pious people did not come forth with their prayers.” Wilhelm Rem,“Ain cronica alter und neuer geschichten,” Die Chroniken der deutschen Städte vom 14. bis ins 16. Jahrhundert. Chroniken der schwäbischen Städte. Augsburg, vol. 5, ed. Karl von Hegel and Friedrich Roth (Leipzig: Verlag von S. Hirzel, 1866), 11. On Laminit, see F. Roth,“Die geistliche Betrügerin Anna Laminit von Augsburg,” Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 43 (1924), 355–417. 173 4. Though many studies have noted that
printing, and saints’ lives made up about 31.2 percent of this output, with fables and stories at 18 percent, history at 17.2 percent, moral tracts at 14.2 percent, school texts at 5.7 percent, poetry and satire at 4 percent, and journalistic works at 3.9 percent. Kunast, Getruckt zu Augspurg, 240–41. 2. Exceptions include the altarpiece of the Frankfurt Carmelites’ Anne brotherhood in the Historisches Museum, Frankfurt (illustrated in Brandenbarg, Heilig Familieleven, 75–79, 92, 96); the Legend