The Anna Selbdritt in late medieval Germany : meaning and function of religious image

The Anna Selbdritt in late medieval Germany : meaning and function of religious image

The Anna Selbdritt in late medieval Germany : meaning and function of religious image

Virginia Nixon

Doctor of Philosophy, Concordia University, School of Graduate Studies, Montreal, Canada (1997)


In the decades between 1480 and 1520 the production of images of Saint Anne with the Virgin and Child increased in Germany and the Netherlands in an unprecedented manner. This increase followed on the extensive promotion of the saint’s cult by Netherlandish and Rheinland German humanists and reforming clerics that began in the 1480s, manifesting itself in the founding of confraternities dedicated to her and in the writing of lives and other texts. These texts, which were republished elsewhere in Germany, were of crucial importance in heightening Anne’s popularity for they attributed to her a power unprecedented in saints’ lives, the power to help souls achieve salvation. This power which Anne enjoyed thanks to her fleshly relationship with the Redeemer and his mother, had special appeal for German Christians, who in the fifteenth century were showing a heightened concern over individual salvation. This attempt to encourage membership in St. Anne confraternities was part of a larger clerical program to control and shape lay piety in the late medieval North, in part in response to anxieties over lay, especially lay women’s, religious activities, in part in response to financial pressures. Not only did the texts ascribe salvific power to Anne.

The images, both the Anna Selbdritt which depicts Anne with Mary and the Child Jesus, and the Holy Kinship which shows her with her extended family, also link Saint Anne with salvation, first by compositions which emphasize her role as the source of the flesh of Mary and Jesus, and second by the directions of the gazes. The hooded gaze of the fifteenth-century madonna, which is directed either downwards at her son or into the distance towards his coming crucifixion, and which aligns her with the role of co-redemptrix (merited by her fore-known humility) that some fifteenth-century theologians ascribed to her, is repeated in the figure of Anne. Thus Anne, as well as Mary, is compositionally linked with the redemptive sacrifice. This type of composition is found where texts ascribe salvific power to Anne, in Germany and Flanders, but it is not found where this motif is absent, for example in England and Italy.

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