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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.