St Anne teaches the Virgin to read

Fifteenth Century Stained glass window from All Saints North Street, York



I would like to acknowledge the kindness of the Church community at All Saints, North Street in permitting me to use this image as my site icon.  You may visit the image at this site.  The link will lead you to a full history of the Church and a set of annotated images of its astonishing stained glass.

I would like to encourage you to visit this Church and pray for me there, or indeed anywhere else.

One of the remarkable thing about this window is the prominence it gives, in the centre panel above the High Altar, to the image of a woman teaching her daughter to read.  Mary is not leaning to write; the ‘pen’ she holds is actually a pointer for following the words.  The words too are real words.  As far as I can make out they are the opening of one of the Seven Penitential Psalms; Domine exaudi orationem meam opens both Psalm 101 and 142, but I think the continuation suggests the latter.  (If you are not using the Vulgate, add one to the Psalm number).  These Psalms were used liturgically, and please comment if you can add to their likely use in York or Mediaeval liturgy generally.

By the fifteenth century this type of St Anne is very common – I don’t know its history, but I would love to know more.  Mary’s reading activity is significant: the angel of the Annunciation always finds her at her devotions, often with a book.  The remarkable German example below is in the National Gallery.  Prizes for telling me what the Virgin is reading.  (The angel’s wand unsurprisingly says Ave, Gratia Plena, Dominus Tecum, Luke 1. 28). Mary’s devotion is part of the grace which enables her uniquely to receive the Holy Spirit, and so save the world.  In Mediaeval theology, she is born without sin, so that she does not acquire grace by reading.  But reading is constantly depicted as an important part of her female devotion, and it is something she learns from her mother.  Like the realistic furnishings in the picture below, the associations  between women, home learning, literacy, and devotion reflect realities of pre-Reformation lay piety which are missing in the comic book version.

Annunciation, Maestro di Liesborn, German, late fifteenth century (National Gallery)

2 thoughts on “St Anne teaches the Virgin to read

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