- Mary's Mother: Saint Anne in Late Medieval Europe
Since early Christian times, artists have faced the challenge of giving visual form to beliefs. Dogma and devotion evolve, and so must art. Thus, the study of religious iconography goes hand in hand with that of theology and spirituality, and because none of them exists in a vacuum, such study must consider wider contexts (historical, social, economic, etc.) as well. Hagiography provides fertile ground for this type of enquiry as the popularity of saints ebbs and flows across time and geographic areas. As Virginia Nixon states in the preface to her [End Page 307] new book on Saint Anne, "Far from being a purely art historical project, it turned out to be as much about the history of religion, and indeed about history in a general sense"(p. xi).
Despite its title, the book is concerned with a more limited area than "Late Medieval Europe" and deals mostly with German-speaking lands (along with Flanders and Holland) in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. It focuses on two iconographies: Anna Selbdritt (Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary, and the Baby Jesus) and the Holy Kinship, in which the three figures are accompanied by Anne's three husbands and their abundant progeny. Although the book takes art as a starting point, its essential focus is on the saint's cult: the texts that chronicle her life (apocrypha and later writings), shrines, monastic foundations, and confraternities dedicated to her.
The author argues that Anne was "a saint among other saints"(p. 21) until the 1470's, when her popularity grew through the agency of clerics and humanists who believed in her salvific powers (chapter 3) and saw her as a model for female behavior, especially that of middle-class laywomen (chapter 4). Perhaps the book's most interesting contribution is its discussion of how the cult was used in fund-raising for the Church (chapter 6). Focusing on two German examples—Augsburg, "an old city undergoing major social and economic changes"(p. 92), and the newly created Saxon town of Annaberg—the author shows how the rebuilding of churches and convents, along with the acquisition of relics, works of art, and indulgences, were the result of their "competition with one another for status, clientele, and ultimately income"(p. 82). The next chapter, "Functions and Perceptions:How People Used Images,"on contemporary reactions to images (in particular as criticized by Protestant writers), remains too general. It contributes no new information to a topic that has been studied in depth by other scholars. After a short chapter (eleven pages) on "Anne's Decline," we encounter the concluding chapter, "The Images."
It is surprising, to say the least, for a book that aims to explain the remarkable flourishing of Anne imagery at the turn of the fifteenth century, to wait until the last chapter to see images addressed in depth. The limited number of illustrations (thirty-six, all black and white) does not do justice to the richness of the material. Also problematic is the absence of any methodological background. The author ignores important work on the construction of saints' cults (for instance, André Vauchez's, missing from the bibliography), or Jean Wirth's 1978 essay "Sainte Anne est une sorcière"(re-edited by Droz in 2003). Nixon is surprisingly oblivious of medieval spirituality (exegetical readings of the Song of Songs, so fundamental for Marian imagery, are absent), which limits her ability to understand the images she discusses. A case in point is her discussion of the motif—rather than a compositional feature, as she calls it (p. 58)—of the Madonna and St. Anne gazing into space. This unfocussed gaze, betraying their knowledge of the baby's future Passion, expresses their participation in the plan of redemption. Although certainly true, this insight leaves out important implications for the way images were actually used. As the author later [End Page 308] acknowledges, it is an "inward" gaze (p. 59):the two meditating women act as...