The Virgin Mary: Evolution of a Bookworm
Connecting Literacy and Christmas: It all Starts with the World’s Most Famous Interruption
In the Annunciation, the archangel Gabriel interrupts the Virgin Mary to reveal she will become the mother of the Messiah. But interrupts her doing what? Luke’s gospel account only says Gabriel arrived and began talking; what Mary was up to goes unmentioned.
An early Christian writing known as the Protoevangelium of James provides Mary’s backstory and offers a retelling of the Nativity. It presents Mary spinning purple thread for a new veil in the Jerusalem temple. Gabriel’s otherworldly voice sounds when Mary stops to get a drink of water. Unnerved, she returns to her seat and resumes her work, at which point Gabriel appears and relays his message.
Whether directly from the Protoevangelium or a prior shared tradition, many early representations of the Annunciation reveal Mary either holding thread or at a well with a pitcher. In other words, Gabriel interrupts Mary working or taking a breather. But a later western iconographic tradition, especially after the eleventh century, shows something not discussed in those first accounts: Gabriel interrupts Mary reading.
For a time the two traditions coexisted. Some illustrations show Mary holding a book and her spindle. But eventually the book won out. By the late Middle Ages and Renaissance Mary is evidently more at ease in a library than beside a spinning wheel. Now used to showing Mary with a book, artists carried the theme beyond the Annunciation. New depictions appeared showing younger Mary learning to read, older Mary teaching Christ to read, and others besides.
It’s unlikely the historical Mary could read at all, but medieval Christians transformed her into an icon of literacy. All of which leads to a question: When and how did the Mother of God become such a bookworm? It’s a fun question for the bookish to contemplate around this time of year.
Mary the Reader
When Gabriel appears to tell Mary about becoming the mother of Jesus, she stops the angel to ask how. Ambrose, fourth century bishop of Milan, said in his Commentary on Luke that Mary knew Isaiah’s prophecy that “a virgin will conceive and bear a son.” Discovering she might be the selfsame virgin fired her curiosity, especially since Isaiah lacked detail. “Mary had read this passage,” said Ambrose, “therefore she believed that the prophecy would come true, but she could not have read about how it would happen.”
Notice Mary hadn’t simply heard the prophecy; she had read it. Ambrose was one of the first people to refer to Mary’s literacy this way, according to Laura Saetveit Miles, writing in the medieval studies journal Speculum. (Origen seems to be the first.) Nor was this the only time Ambrose did so. While praising Mary’s virtues in his treatise, Concerning Virginity, Ambrose said she was “devoted to reading.” Even when she slept “her spirit kept vigil . . . reviewing things she had read. . . .”
Gabriel found Mary “alone in the most secluded room of the house, where she would not be distracted or disturbed.” Though alone, she wasn’t by herself. “Indeed,” Ambroses asked, “how could she have been alone when she enjoyed the company of so many books, so many archangels, so many prophets?” She communed with these and more through her reading.
Ambrose, says Miles, conjured this portrayal of Mary’s studious solitude to encourage and instruct monastics. A literate Mary modeled not only moral purity but also zeal for the scriptures, the sacred writings. Miles highlights others who built on this portrayal in later centuries, including the Venerable Bede in the eighth.
Like Ambrose, Bede assumed Mary knew about the virgin birth from her reading but wondered how it would happen. “She was certain that what she was then hearing from the angel and what she had previously read in the sayings of the prophet necessarily had to be fulfilled,” said Bede in his Homilies on the Gospels, “and so she inquired about the way in which it was to be accomplished. The prophet who predicted that this would be did not say how it could be done, reserving that instead for the angel to say.”
So far such examples establish the belief that Mary was a reader. But they also assume she had read the scriptures before the Annunciation. What’s missing is any assertion she was in the middle of reading when Gabriel paid his visit. That changed a century later.
Around 860 a German monk at the abbey of Weissenburg wrote a 15,000-line vernacular gospel harmony in verse. Otfrid of Weissenburg is the first German poet known by name. He was the first to employ end-of-line rhyme. And in his Evangelienbuch he became the first writer to place a book in Mary’s hand at the Annunciation.
Describing Gabriel’s approach, he said, “he found her praising God/With her psalter in her hands, singing through until the end . . .” Why the Psalms and not, say, Isaiah for which there was precedent in writers like Ambrose and Bede? It’s possible Otfrid mined another source called the Pseudo-Gospel of Matthew, which expanded on the Protoevangelium. It not only mentions Mary was learned in the law, but also that she was also given to singing Psalms.
About the very same time, some 115 miles to the west in Metz, an artist engraved another first: a visual depiction of Mary with a book in hand upon Gabriel’s arrival. In the small ivory panel on what is known as the Brunswick Casket, Mary holds her thread in her left hand but also marks with her right thumb a page in an open book.
“In the Brunswick Casket ivory carving,” says Miles, “Mary clearly closes her hand around the top of the book in a gesture that evokes ownership, and also connects her more closely to the reading experience that was just interrupted: she keeps her page marked, perhaps her thumb on the line.” A contemporary artist working in Northern France carved the very same pose in a panel of an ivory bucket for dispensing holy water. The only difference? The thread is gone. For this artist, all the symbolism now resides in the book.
These visuals were picked up again a hundred years later by the English illuminator of the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold, which contains blessings for the bishop to offer for various feast days. The illustration of Mary and her book, patterned on the Brunswick carving or a similar model, comes before the benediction for the first Sunday in Advent. In this case, seen below, Mary’s hand rests on the page, her index finger holding her place.
Whether penned, carved, or painted, these scenes of the Virgin owe their existence to the Carolingian renaissance, which was marked by monastic reform and commitment to literacy. Mary was pictured as the great example of the contemplative life, the “faithful reader,” as University of Ottawa professor David Lyle Jeffery put it. But if these words and images were largely meant for abbots, bishops, and other clerical professionals, as Miles indicates, how did Mary’s bookishness spread?
No. 1 Medieval Bestseller
Miles credits three interrelated trends in the twelfth century: (1) religious devotion to Mary, (2) the number of convents and nuns, and (3) women’s literacy. As these developments expanded, encountering Mary holding a book became commonplace. Artists began including the scene in altarpieces, stained glass windows, and sculptures. By the end of the century, no one—priests, monks, or laity—remembered the Theotokos had ever spun thread. She fingered texts, not textiles.
One reason for the change was the ability of the devout to identify with the Virgin by emulating her practice. Depictions of the bookish Mary proliferated in Books of Hours as a result. These private prayerbooks, favored first by upper- and later middle-class lay readers, were popular enough to be characterized as medieval bestsellers by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Users were encouraged to see themselves kneeling in prayer just like the Virgin depicted.
“Any Book of Hours was liable to have a picture of the Annunciation in it,” says religious historian Eamon Duffy in his book, Marking the Hours. Here was the original scene of the Ave Maria, or the Hail Mary, given on the same page as the prayer book that invokes it. “The female user of the book therefore no longer simply recites the Hail Mary,” says Duffy, “she has climbed inside it, and has become part of the scene which her prayer evokes and commemorates.”
This devotional identification with the Virgin was critical for the evolution of the Virgin as bookworm. As religious reading grew in importance for late medieval Christians, images of Mary reading inspired more such images until they came to dominate the iconography of the Annunciation—inspiring reading itself as the popularity grew.
You can see the development in the images below. Note the early dominance of thread and the shift to the book—from the fifth century mosaic at Santa Maria Maggiore, where Mary pulls thread from a basket, to the late Middle Ages and beyond, where it’s books, books, books.1
Where did the Virgin Mary learn to read? Assuming she actually did, it’s possible Mary learned from her father, Joachim, or in the Jewish temple, where the Protoevangelium says she spent her youth. The most common answer in the medieval West triggered another line of iconographic development: images of Mary’s mother, St. Anne, teaching her daughter how to navigate a page. Some even show an elderly Anne with Mary teaching a toddler Christ to read; the three figures collectively known as the St. Anne Trinity.
As with the earlier Annunciation images, these depictions rode a wave of rising female literacy and simultaneously encouraged its expansion. “Rather than simply mirroring the society of which it is a part, art functions to shape that society,” explains Baruch College professor Pamela Sheingorn in the medieval arts journal Gesta. “It is no accident or coincidence that the image of Anne teaching the Virgin Mary appeared when it did.”
As people in the late Middle Ages and found literacy more useful for religious and increasingly secular reasons, Mary the bookworm emerged as the primary role model. To be like Mary was to read like Mary.
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Another idea, also related to the book, captured the Christian imagination centuries earlier. If Christ is the Word, as John says in his gospel, what did that make Mary?
“Hail, ineffable Mother of a mystery beyond understanding; hail, new book of a new scripture.” Those are the words of the fifth century bishop of Ancyra, Theodotos. If Christ was the Word, that made Mary the book, her womb the page. The anonymous poet known as Greek Ephrem called Mary “the Book written by God, in which the debts of Adam were canceled.” There are many such references in the hymnography and theological reflections of ancient Christians, along with seeing Mary as the tablets upon which the New Covenant is written.