TROUT   [4] 

Judy Haswell
Mary Reading
   It took me a while to recognise that medieval and Renaissance depictions of Mary at the Annunciation, traditionally give her a book to read; and even discounting the fact that way back at the Western beginning of positive time or perhaps 3 years before that, Mary would not have been a prolific reader - scrolls and codices were housed in the libraries of eminent families or substantial public establishments or, at the least, down in the local synagogue - in medieval times, she still would have been unlikely to have had access to any books at all, unless she were independently wealthy, which is unlikely, or attached to a religious community, which presumably Mary was not, or from a noble family which, in a sort of way, I suppose she was - her divine connections were, of course, impeccable.  

It has to do with prestige and being able to read and just as a large coffee-table format might have sufficed today, or a busy folder stuffed with notes or, a compact laptop, perhaps, with jewel-coloured cellphone (in this the Information Age, we network even from caf  é or car, so busy we are), she has to be seen with something erudite enough but not unbecomingly so; her knowledge appropriately contained, small enough packaged and expensively embellished; the possession of it, on the one hand, conferring power through privilege, and, on the other, taking it away, by presenting her knowing as something to be wrapped up, bundled away, and then, only on private occasions, to be unwrapped, opened carefully with reverence and admired, stared at, meditated upon - activites which an everyday status lady could safely be allowed to endulge in. Perhaps. 

For the text deemed so entirely suitable even if acted upon was a devotional one: a collection of prayers and psalms and extracts from the Gospels arranged within and around the canonical hours, ie. a Book of Hours; what we might call today, 'Daily Readings' or 'Thoughts for the Day'.  At the heart of this type of book is a section for the Hours of the Virgin and at the beginning of this section there is usually an image of the Annunciation. There are prayers too, Marian prayers; prayers to herself. 

I mentioned the incongruity of all this to a friend who told me about Erasmus. Erasmus, he said, was once arguing with someone who claimed that women are not properly bookish and Erasmus remonstrated that Mary is shown always with a book even if it is only a Book of Hours. But unless Mary was rather ahead of herself or reading in hindsight, surely - for the good and humility of her soul - she must have been, should have been reading something else. Medieval minds could apparently quite easily cope with living on two planes at once but it would have been more theologically sound, even for such sensibilities, to have given her a detective story or a recipe book or a dancing manual to read; some of her poses would suggest the artists did that. 

Artists of the period, moreover, were not too interested in facial expressions. It was enough to paint her as serious of intent - with a book in the hand, no scatty, lightweight character here. That Mary looks often irritated or tired or even depressed is hopefully, therefore, an accident - to be interrupted by an angel brandishing a lily is hardly an everyday event, and so beautifully dressed at that. Perhaps the implications of his message did seem rather improbable, or she was allergic to pollen or the prayers are not dry as dust after all (how could they be); and, in fact, she does want to get to the end before the light fades, give me 5 minutes more and she is so tired of posing for all these paintings. Of course, being a woman ahead of her time in this sense, if it was a mathematical treatise, she'd probably already have read it and the garland of Greek epigrams she knows off by heart and, oh no, not another tangle of love and jealousy between some foreign gods. 

She looks up. This is important. Even if she is still unsure. Marks her place with a finger or two, or a hand. Can life be stranger than fiction. Or comparable. No-one has warned her. Yet, if fiction is the lie that may tell us of truth, as another friend says, perhaps at that moment, she recognises the blurring of boundaries and decides to lend herself, as it were. To enter the story, the beautiful picture. She closes the book. 

May 1998

   © 1998