In Mary's Mother, Nixon portrays the Medieval Saint Anne as the patron of the home, the seas, and the well-to-do. The mother of three consecutive families in one lifetime (each with a child named Mary), she is a controversial figure indeed. But is this intricate story one of legend or truth or a mixture of the two? That is the fascinating question that is never quite answered by this work of artistic and textual history. Four clusters of arguments are identified as goals for the book: 1.) the success of the cult; 2.) cult economic factors; 3.) related female sexual and social behavior; 4.) image use and perception (pp. 6-7).
After a discussion of immaculate versus "maculate" conception (the idea that Mary had been freed from original sin after her conception, but prior to her birth — pg. 14), in the High Middle Ages, Anne is seen as a maritime protectress. Then later into the Middle Ages, she is viewed most often as the ultimate source of the flesh of Christ (pg. 18). Further, the "trinity" of Mary, Jesus, and Anne is referenced throughout (the grandmother, Anne, being enlarged and elevated, Mary and child miniaturized).
A riveting collection of art through history is presented. Some pieces are analyzed deeply, others are only glossed over. For instance, the 1501 woodcut of Saint Anne holding out an apple to the Christ Child on Mary's lap with God, angels, a dove, Joseph, Anne's three husbands, and one kneeling pilgrim surrounding them (pp. 36-37) is spoken of in terms of possibly being part of an Anne shrine, but no more. The significance of the apple itself and Anne's role with it deserves attention, as well as other parts of this finely-tuned bench-type composition.
Anne's relics are continually associated with miracles ranging on the continuum from healing to development of personal holiness to "deliverance from temptation to sexual sin" (pg. 38). As Saint Anne progressed through time, devotion for salvation continued, but added to it was money and status. Surprisingly, she surpassed the Virgin Mary in adoration in Late Medieval Germany.
The theme of salvation via Anne was extended to include protection from the power of the devil (pg. 47). She was ascribed great impact due to her direct relationship with Mary and the Savior himself. "As pure as her daughter... Anne was chosen by God before the creation of the world" (pg. 48).
Always moving back to money, she is associated with the Marian theme of coming to the rescue of the undeserving rich when they honor her daily (pg. 48). The reverse is also true with the salvation role: "Neglect Anne, and lose salvation" (pg. 51).
Aside from her divine lineage, Anne draws on two other sources of great power: the large size of her family and her family's nobility (pg. 52). Anne "brotherhoods" rarely reach out to the poor. They are inclined toward the middle to upper-levels — requiring devotion at a confraternity altar in front of an actual image (pg. 68).
Anne modeled virtuous, modest behavior, never gossiping and rarely being seen outside the home. She is viewed as holy, and therefore sexually inactive, though always married (pg. 71). On the other hand, she is bluntly referred to by many as simply "the patron of those who wanted to get rich" (pg. 77).
The association with shipping relates well to this theme. "Anne not only protects wealth from sinking to the bottom of the sea, she now helps to increase it" (pg. 78). Images are elaborated upon to further advance this theme.
The eventual decline of Anne is documented by her placement in various art forms early in the sixteenth century and beyond. She is no longer the central figure. "Mary holds the child while Anne sits on the floor, reaching up but not touching him" (1520s art — pg. 125).
A late fifteenth century Anne illustrates competing paradigms: "the modest Anne of the texts does not correspond to the regal Anne of the works of art" (pg. 127).
Salvific power is linked to her central role in the home. The men start to take part in the raising of children too, but only dominating the most prestigious form, that of intellectual care. The women remain in charge of bodily care (pg. 128). Finally, Anne is superseded entirely by Mary and the Christ Child as central figures. She becomes elderly in her appearance, distanced from her daughter and grandson. Less logical in its placement, the point of the apple and offering sexual sin to the Christ Child is made here (pg. 129), rather than in the younger woodcut image early on in the book.
The role reversal in terms of power position is well taken, however. Anne is now lower (physically) than Mary and Christ — no longer the giver or mediator of salvation, but the recipient (pg. 130).
The last section analyzes images, from Eucharistic grapes to apples and cherries representing the orb of the world and Christ himself, respectively. Gowns flowing, rich gardens, and elaborate dinner tables are examined in-depth (pp. 141-143). Those of great wealth still especially identified with Anne, not simply for salvation and protection of riches, but to identify their family status with hers, "the most exalted family of all" (pg. 159).
In sum, this work of Saint Anne's Northern cult concentrated on the period of 1480 to 1530, with suggestions for intensive study of other key periods as well. It is a mere start to a puzzle still mostly unsolved today. The legend of Saint Anne will always be more easily documented than the historical truth, whatever time period we wish to focus on. Of only that, can we be truly certain.