Mary’s books in three Renaissance Pictures

Today is or isn’t Assumption dependent on your point of view.  In my many years as an Anglican (Anglo-Catholics, look away now), I have heard almost no sermons on the Virgin Mary, despite the fact that she is the subject of quite a lot of verses in the Gospels.  The disciple who mothered Jesus and was with him at his death, who was mentioned in his dying words, gets a very poor reception in Protestant  preaching.

On one Sunday August 15th, I heard a well-respected Anglican divine improve what had recently become the anniversary of the Omagh bombing with schoolmasterly tuttings about the follies of Catholics.  Mary is the only disciple whose name seems to trigger the impulse to slag off other Christians from the pulpit.  For me, that ought to be St Paul, who spends loads of time slagging off other Christians, but what do I know?

More constructively, I once heard a trainee Baptist minister attempt the topic. It was a brave move – you could actually hear the eyebrows rising.   The line he took was hardly flattering to the one blessed among women, or women in general; Mary ‘would have been’ a typical teenage girl, as in a ditsy phone addict with the IQ of a rabbit.  After all, God can choose anyone, even Mary.

At the moment, I am interested in assumptions about Mary’s literacy in Renaissance art.  Mediaeval and Renaissance Christians assumed that Mary could read, that she studied God’s word and that her spirituality helped prepare her for her role as the mother of Christ.  In many images of the Annunciation,  Mary is pictured reading devotionally when the angel visits her.  Traditionally, she reads Isaiah 7. 14.  Here is an Annunciation by Duccio.  If you go to the National Gallery Site where it comes from, you can zoom in on the book and actually read the words; ECCE VIRGO CONCIPIET ET PARIET FILIUM ET VOCABITUR.  Everyone is a bit greenish because the painting comes from Siena, where they used a green under-layer for flesh tones.

Duccio Annunciation completed 1311

The book in this picture is not realistic.  The writing is artificially large to communicate the text.  My post on St Anne Teaching the Virgin to Read helps make the point that giving Mary books in art is not just an ornamental way of introducing the Scriptural text.  Mary was definitely assumed to be literate.  The Master of Liesborn  Annunciation, which I published in that post, is particularly interesting because it includes a horn book, the basic literacy tool for ordinary people, and a scrap of writing.  Here it is again.

Master of Liesborn Annunciation, National Gallery

Just under the back window is the horn book.   The scrap of writing is on the table.  This is interesting in itself, because it suggests that Mary can write – a different skill in the period.  She might be practising writing, or copying something she needs to keep, maybe for a commonplace book.  Little strips of writing could also be charms, although this doesn’t seem right here.

If you follow through to the National Gallery Link, you will be able to magnify the pieces of writing to try to see what they say.  The detail in this picture is so fascinating it is well worth doing.  In fact, I don’t think there are distinct words – the book in the foreground only has black and red lines which look like writing.

However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t hope to identify what the writing is supposed to say.  Sometimes the artist includes features which indicate the content of the text.  I’m going to finish this blog with a beautiful picture that illustrates this.

Annunciation by Van Eyck, Fifteenth Century in National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

You should be able to magnify this picture too if you visit the link.  And it is well worth doing.  This artist imagines the Annunciation in a Cathedral -like environment.  This doesn’t mean he got the location wrong – the structure is probably symbolic, though it could represent an actual Church.  Of all the many things in this picture, I am especially interested in the book.  The writing is not legible, but the artist has included an ornate letter P; the first letter of Isaiah 7. 14 in Latin – PROPTER.  So where Duccio depicts the book unrealistically in order to make the text legible, Van Eyck makes the book realistic and just uses one letter to suggest the missing text.  But on the top of the page on the viewer’s left, upside down, from Mary’s point of view, are the letters ES, presumably for Esaias, or Isaiah.

But does Mary only ever read Isaiah 7. 14?  If you use the magnification option, you can see that she and the angel are literally standing on Old Testament stories, interlaced with signs of the Zodiac.  There is a compendium of learning under their feet.  As she converses on a level with the angel, this serene Mary seems to be a conscious participant in her destiny.

However, Van Eyck’s painting is a symbolic meditation on the place of the Incarnation in God’s plan, rather than a realistic depiction.  Mary clearly does not actually live in a large Church.  This painting places her in a theological perspective, not a natural environment.  Perhaps all the learning belongs to Mary as part of her special grace from God.  This Mary doesn’t seem to have a human life where she actually does everyday things and has to study and pray.

So my favourite Annunciation so far remains the Master of Liesborn, whose Mary is so real that she needs a cord to hold up the canopy of her curtained bed.  She lives in a luxurious bedsitter, with a bedside cupboard, a candlestick, embroidered cushions on a settle, and she has a horn book and writes on scraps of parchment.  This is a Mary who definitely reads.

This post is dedicated to my brother Jonathan.




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