/ Essays / 2005 / No.7: Maria reading, a model for women?

Friederun Hardt-FriederichsEssay No.7June, 05 2005

Maria reading, a model for women?

Maria as the role model for an educated and thus necessarily emancipated woman? Can we even imagine it?

What do we know about the Holy Virgin as a reader and writer, represented reading and writing in the fine arts? Was she an inspiring model for women?
Encountering Maria reading in the fine arts raises questions about her many-faceted role in Christian tradition and her influence on pious women.

Die heilige Familie
Figure 1:
Die heilige Familie, ca 1475/80
Martin Schongauer (ca 1435/50 - 1491)

With friendly permission of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Holy Maria

The Church calls Maria by many names: the Lauretanian (Lauretanisch) litany does as well. For Catholic believers in particular, she is called on to intercede with Christ (footnote 1). Mentioned in the New Testament, Maria is considered the new Eve, following in the footsteps of major female figures of the Old Testament (Sarah, Hannah, Deborah, Judith and Esther). Viewed as a daughter of Zion, she represents Israel at the Final Judgment. The magnificat presents her as a prophet, the fulfillment of an Old Testament promise in the New. Maria is considered the major role model and origin of Christian belief. She is the mother of Jesus, the porte-parole, helper, mediator, queen of the heavens, mother of mercy and mother of the church. Maria is the chosen one, pardoned and free of original sin (footnote 2).
But we never see Maria as an educated woman who reads and writes.

Maria in the Bible

Let's go back to the source. What does the Bible tell us about Maria? Although she certainly was, and most likely still is, the most famous female figure in the Christian West, the New Testament (footnote 3), despite ample interpretations and exegeses, gives surprisingly little information about her.
In several Gospel passages and in Luke (1.14) we meet her as a virgin, as Joseph's wife, as pregnant, as a mother, as female, and as the "most blessed among women" (Apo., Luke, 1.28 and 1.42). But only in Luke, Matthew and the Apostles is she even mentioned by name! Mark and John don't use her name at all! In their chapters she is a mother or simply a woman (footnote 4).
Thronende Maria mit Kind
Figure 2:
Thronende Maria mit Kind
Antonello da Messina (ca 1430 - 1479)
Altar von Cassiano, 65 cm

With friendly permission of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Now, this is not the place to quote the Bible nor to offer new Biblical interpretations (footnote 5). But to discover whether Maria could read and write, or instead, was as uneducated as she is represented to be by the Catholic Church (footnote 6), we should cast a quick glance at her Biblical representation.
To anticipate what we will find: nowhere in the Bible do we encounter Maria reading and writing! There is no evidence of it, not even in the annunciation scene, of particular interest to us.

In Luke (1.27 ff) we read about this well-known event: "The Angel appeared to her and spoke." Not a word about the situation in which Maria might have found herself at that moment. Was she doing housework? Was she at the spinning wheel? Or was she reading in the Old Testament? We'll never know.
Whether Maria could read or write is therefore a fact the Bible will never reveal to us. Now, Zacharias, husband of Elizabeth, a relative of Maria's and mother of John the Baptist, could write (Luke 1.63) and apparently so could her son Jesus, but that's another (men's) story.
Thus, Mary is not represented in the Bible as able to read and write, yet she certainly doesn't remain speechless, let alone mute, when she meets Archangel Gabriel. She is of course startled -- and who wouldn't be if an angel suddenly appeared? -- and shows astonishment (footnote 7), but instantly she poses a critical question upon hearing she'll soon be pregnant: "how is that supposed to happen? Especially since I know no man" (Luke 1.34). With humility as a believer she accepts the destiny as select and blessed laid on her shoulders and calls herself a servant of the Lord (footnote 8). She exclaims her joy and, not without pride, tells her relative Elizabeth, "Look. From now on I will be held blessed by all humankind" (Luke 1.48). This suggests that Maria is fully aware of her role from the start and lives it out. She demonstrates this later during an incident at the wedding in Galilean Cana, where she would like to influence events and feels she can do so through her son Jesus, although he responds to her in anger: "Woman, what have I got to do with you? My hour is not yet here" (John 2.2 ff).
Gladly would we know more about Mary from the Bible but the disciples, with the exception of Luke, offer us little help.

Madonna in den Erdbeeren
Figure 3:
Madonna in den Erdbeeren, um 1425
Meister des Paradiesgärtleins
Mischtechnik auf Fichtenholz, 145,5 x 87 cm

With friendly permission of Kunstmuseum Solothurn

Maria in the Book of John

So let's take a look at the Apocrypha (footnote 9). There, in Jacob's narrative, we'll learn a little more about Maria, her parents and childhood. Her parents, Joachim and Anna remained childless at first, but then God, hearing their prayers and pleas, sent an angel to Anna in a manner very like that in which one would later appear to Mary, and the angel spoke: "You will conceive and bear a child. And your progeny will be known throughout the world." In gratitude Anna promised: "Should I have a child, whether boy or girl, I will sacrifice that child to the service of God, that it shall serve its whole life long." It was a girl named Mary who was raised in a sheltered manner. At age three she was brought to the temple where she was "cared for like a dove and given food by the hands of angels." When she was twelve, the priests decided to give her in marriage to a widower. The choice was determined by the enchanted rod that pointed to Joseph who brought her home and then continued on to work.
History tells us nothing about lessons for little Maria during her temple years but we can assume that she picked up a great deal during her time of service. For the story continues, and it is told that, together with other virgins, Maria worked at home on a curtain of "true purple and scarlet" for the synagogue. Then the Annunciation scene occurs. Maria has just returned from drawing water, enters the house, lowers the water container, sits down and begins to spin purple thread. "And look, an angel of the Lord stood (suddenly) before her and spoke."
Here we learn that Maria was busy spinning thread for the synagogue curtain; she was certainly not reading the Holy Scripture. Maria was, however, "sixteen years old when all these mysterious things happened to her," we read further on. So we have a gap of four years between the end of her synagogue service, her taking up residence in Joseph’s house, and the Annunciation. How did Maria spend her time in the absent Joseph’s house?

Maria in the "Gofine"

The "Gofine", sitting in front of me (footnote 10), is a Catholic version from the turn of the last century containing pious commentary for Catholics who earlier, unlike Protestants, were not supposed to be reading the Bible for themselves. Instead, they were to consult the Catholic commentaries on the Old and New Testaments, concerning the Apocrypha, etc. These, finally, set us onto the trail.
There we read that it was then the custom for parents to place their children for a period of time in the service of god. During their apprenticeship the children were to obey the Commandments, to live in a house built near Solomon’s temple and "receive instruction in the Lord’s laws and devotions." In addition, the following is reported: "As soon as Maria entered the holy house, she was given a pretty little room all to herself where she would pray and sleep. She also received a woman teacher who was to teach her prayers and blessings. She was supposed to pray, read, write, sew, knit, "psalliren" and perform work in the temple." At last we have notice that Maria could read and write and received a solid education. If only this were also in the Bible and not just in a "Gofine"!

Maria der Verkündigung
Figure 4:
Maria der Verkündigung, 1473
Antonello da Messina
Oil on wood, 43 × 32 cm

Alte Pinakothek, Munich

The Historical Maria

If we look elsewhere than at the Bible’s version of the Maria story, we see the wife of a carpenter in the apparently rural town of Nazareth, a very pious Jewish woman named Miriam which means myrrh (footnote 11). She knows and follows the rules of her Jewish tradition; she is humble as a maid in the presence of her god. She accepts what he demands of her. It is thought that Maria stems from a clerical family since her cousin Elizabeth is married to the priest Zacharias (footnote 12). Her brother-in-law Zebedee, her sister’s husband; and their sons James and John appear linked to the priesthood. Thus we may be justified in thinking her close to synagogue history (footnote 13) and to the teachings of a temple virgin (footnote 14), thereby having acquired a respectable knowledge of the Old Testament. Significant as well is the fact that she has King David in her family tree, as Joseph does also. And finally, in the Apostles’ stories, she fares rather well in terms of her education, as she’s shown to be knowledgeable and well-informed, especially in the Magnificat song of praise.
For this ancient era, written sources are apparently scarce and incomplete, giving us little information about the education of Jewish girls in Old Testament times. We can suppose, though, that they received less schooling in comparison to boys. There were, of course, exceptions, when daughters might have been taught by their fathers or brothers, or, in the upper classes, would have been included with their brothers learning from tutors. But we have no grounds for supposing that girls in Jerusalem at that time attended classes outside the home, as was the case for boys (footnote 15). The mother was of course the first among those who raised a girl and was also her role model (Ezekiel 16.44: "You are your mother's daughter"). Now, upper class women had free access to their own property and used their own seals, from which we can deduce that they wrote, but no literal text to this effect can be found (footnote 16). Thus, in the best of cases, Maria might have profited from instruction given by family members who belonged to the class of religious leaders enjoying 'higher' education.
But as already mentioned, nowhere in the Bible are we told whether Maria could read and write. What a shame! The same is true for her mother Anna, who skill, if she had it, goes similarly unrecorded in the Bible but who is otherwise represented as literate and educated.

Representations of Maria

Let's now move away from speculation and interpretation of what the Bible and other texts tell us about Maria's education and come to the main point: Maria is one of the most, if not the most often painted female figure in the Christian world. And here, too, she is portrayed in various situations and roles.

Verkündigung an Maria
Figure 5:
Verkündigung an Maria, 16th century
Lucas van Leyden
Oil on wood, 42 × 29 cm

Alte Pinakothek, Munich

The Annunciation

Thousands of portrayals of the annunciation theme exist. In the ReadingWoman collection alone, numerous works appear although only those are featured in which Maria is reading a book. As research continues, this list will grow. In the meantime, however, we have gathered enough material to begin to examine it more closely.
Above all, we need to ask about the artists' motivation: what moved them to portray Maria reading at the very moment when the Archangel Gebrial appeared to her? Visual images generally served to explain Biblical events to a mainly illiterate public. The Church long took it for granted that the faithful would also accept at face value what they saw so colorfully displayed.
Obviously the Church did not object to seeing Mary reading, especially in that most important instant as the Holy Ghost appears to her and she is overcome by the power of the Almighty to conceive Jesus. We can be quite certain that the Church's position was no coincidence, certainly knowing that nowhere in the Bible is Mary's literacy mentioned, as we saw above.

Why? The Bible does tell us that Mary was a believing Jewish woman who knew her Old Testament very well (footnote 17), as we can conclude from her own words. How she acquired this knowledge remains a mystery to us today, whether she was orally instructed or, instead, became acquainted directly with the Holy Writ. To imagine that at exactly the moment of holiest significance in her life Maria would be portrayed reading the Holy Scriptures is not far-fetched. Holding this text in her hands symbolizes her belief, devoutness and unmediated closeness to God. This must have pleased the Church in its mission to encourage popular piety by using all possible visual media at its disposal. Everything that might increase Maria’s status appears to have been appropriate, regardless of the Biblical historical record.

The artist’s imagination

Artists, of course, were not busy with Biblical exegesis, so we need to ask where the idea of for the image came from. If he had seen older pictures, then naturally he would have adapted elements to his own work. The book was also not limited to suggesting the Holy Scripture (which was in any case at that time a scroll, even if seldom so portrayed), but books were also metaphors for wisdom, education, cleverness, etc., qualities attributed to Maria (see footnote 1). The artist was employing a visual image not unlike representation of the Holy Spirit as a dove.
Thus we have not only the perspective of the Christian Church (footnote 16) that apparently desired representation of an educated Maria, but also the perspective of the artist whose own beliefs flowed onto the canvas.

Figure 6:
Taubenmadonna, 1485-1500
Piero di Cosimo
Oil on wood, 87 × 58 cm

Louvre, Paris

A pious reception

But we can follow another train of thought from a different perspective, namely that of the faithful. How can I describe the probable effect of such paintings and statues on the pious women who looked at them? The female church-goer necessarily sees these artifacts that present literacy, writing, and even teaching within the purview of women. For hundreds of years women have been viewing such works of art. Shouldn’t they be understood as a challenge to women to take the Holy Scripture into their own hands and to read it with their own eyes? Wasn’t the Holy Virgin proffering a call to do likewise and read the Bible for oneself ? Like the pious Anna teaching her little daughter Maria to read, can’t we see here a challenge to all mothers to instruct their children? Hadn’t Christian women been taught to revere precisely these women as models of behavior? Of course, in preceding centuries in the West, education meant a Christian upbringing (as was taking place in the convents). But what would have happened had women accepted Maria not only as an inspiration in piety but also as a model for child-raising and education?
I don’t know the answer, but even today the question alone elicits astonishment. Maria as the role model for an educated and therefore necessarily emancipated woman – is it even thinkable? Maria’s deep piety ensured that she accord her God humility and obedience. Nonetheless, as we clearly see in the pictorial representations, these qualities did not stand in contradiction to education. Why then didn’t women follow Maria’s lead? Did her holiness place her too far above them? Were the cult of Maria and her ritual honor an obstacle to doing as she did? The Lauretanian "Lauretanische" Litany clearly shows us that Maria was reduced to her maternal role, as bearer of God. Evangelism sweeps her independent actions and words under the rug. Independence and spontaneity, as shown in the Marriage at Cana, were not desired (not even by her son Jesus). In fact, at times Jesus reacts to his mother with little respect.

But now let’s look more closely at the works of art themselves. For instance …

Maria the Teacher

For centuries, in their pictures and statues, painters and sculptors have represented Maria not only as able to read but also as teaching baby Jesus to read and write. This imagery continues today (footnote 18).

Anna instructs Maria

Artists were also happy to portray Maria’s mother Anna as a teacher in their paintings and sculpture. We should need no reminding that there is no Biblical evidence whatsoever for this representation. Nonetheless, we find even today on the internet numerous devotional pictures of this subject in the most diverse and saccharine forms on Holy cards (footnote 18).

Hl. Anna Selbdritt
Figure 7:
Hl. Anna Selbdritt, 1518
Hans Springinklee
Woodcut, 244 × 181 cm

Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich

Anna Selbtritt

If you like, we could point out that teaching is already a tradition in the Holy Family, as Anna, Mary's mother, despite there being no mention of her education in the Bible, has repeatedly been portrayed by artists as the teacher of her little daughter Mary and the boy Jesus.
Since the 12th century, Western art has produced extensive Anna-cycles. The devotional picture of Anna Selbtritt is the answer to artists' effort to portray her healing powers. She has been shown to descend from King David and, following the Apocrypha, is associated with the immaculate conception and predestined annunciation. Here the mother's figure often takes center stage between a proportionally smaller Mary and the child Jesus. The famous scene showing Anna teaching Mary has highlighted the honor due her, in high art as well as popular (devotional pictures, glass paintings) (footnote 13).

[translated by Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen]

And to conclude, I would like to thank for intensive discussion:
and all those who kindly gave me valuable information.


Footnote 1
Heilige Maria, bitte für uns (Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis),
Heilige Gottesgebärerin (Sancta Dei Genitrix),
Heilige Jungfrau (aller)der Jungfrauen (Sancta Virgo virginum),
Mutter Christi (Mater Christi),
Mutter der göttlichen Gnade (Mater divinae gratiae),
Du (aller)reinste Mutter (Mater purissima),
Du (aller)keuscheste Mutter (Mater castissima),
Du unversehrte Mutter (Mater inviolata),
Du unbefleckte Mutter (Mater intemerata),
Du liebenswürdige Mutter (Mater amabili),
Du wunderbare Mutter (Mater admirabilis),
Du Mutter des guten Rates (Mater boni consilii),
Du Mutter des Schöpfers (Mater creatoris),
Du Mutter des Erlösers (Mater Salvatoris),
Du weiseste Jungfrau (Virgo prudentissima),
Du ehrwürdige Jungfrau (Virgo veneranda),
Du lobwürdige Jungfrau (Virgo praedicanda)
Du mächtige Jungfrau (Virgo potens),
Du gütige Jungfrau (Virgo clemens),
Du getreue Jungfrau (Virgo fidelis),
Du Spiegel der Gerechtigkeit (Speculum justitiae),
Du Sitz der Weisheit (Sedes sapientiae),
Du Ursache unserer (Fröhlichkeit) Freude (Causa nostrae laetitiae),
Du geistliches Gefäß (Vas spirituale),
Du ehrwürdiges Gefäß (Vas honorabile),
Du vortreffliches Gefäß der Andacht (Vas insigne devotionis),
Du (geistliche) geheimnisvolle Rose (Rosa mystica),
Du Turm Davids (Turris Davidica),
Du elfenbeinerner Turm (Turris eburnea),
Du goldenes Haus (Domus aurea),
Du Arche des Bundes (Foederis arca),
Du Pforte des Himmels (Janua caeli),
Du Morgenstern (Stella matutina),
Du Heil der Kranken (Salus infirmorum),
Du Zuflucht der Sünder (Refugium peccatorum),
Du Trösterin der Betrübten (Consolatrix afflictorum),
Du Hilfe der Christen (Auxilium christianorum),
Du Königin der Engel (Regina Angelorum),
Du Königin der Patriarchen (Regina Patriarcharum),
Du Königin der Propheten (Regina Prophetarum),
Du Königin der Apostel (Regina Apostolorum),
Du Königin der Martyrer (Regina Martyrum),
Du Königin der Bekenner (Regina Confessorum),
Du Königin der Jungfrauen (Regina Virginum),
Du Königin aller Heiligen (Regina Sanctorum omnium),
Du Königin, ohne Makel der Erbsünde empfangen (Regina, sine labe originali concepta),
Du Königin des (hoch)heiligen Rosenkranzes (Regina sacratissimi Rosarii),
Du Königin des Friedens (Regina pacis),
Du schmerzhafte Mutter Gottes (Stabat mater)
Aus: Schott (Messbuch), 1930, S.187 ff

In ( ) aus: M.Mueller, Raphael, Andenken an die erste hl.Kommunion und Führer durchs Leben bis zum Tode, Limburg an der Lahn, 1909, 125ff

J.Schweinsberger, Ehre sei Gott, Taschengebetbüchlein für katholische Christen, Neu-Isenburg, 1904, 260ff
Vgl. auch : P.Laurenz Hecht, Erzbruderschaft des heiligsten und unbefleckten Herzens Mariae zur Bekehrung der Sünder, Einsiedeln, 1844, 292ff : Litanei zum heiligsten Herzen Mariae Heiliges Herz Mariae, bitt für uns Du Herz, das der ewige Vater vor allen Herzen zur Liebe seines eingeborenen Sohnes erkor
Du Haus, das die Weisheit Gottes sich zur Wohnung erbaute
Du feurige, vom heiligen Geist entzündete Lampe, die ewiglich vor dem Throne der heiligen Dreieinigkeit leuchtet
Du verschlossener Garten, worin Jesus, die schönste Blume blühte
Du Herz der neuen Eva, durch die wir die Frucht des Lebens empfingen
Du besiegelte Quelle der göttlichen Geheimnisse
Du Rose der heiligen Dreieinigkeit
Du Stern, der aus Jakob aufstieg, und der Sonne der göttlichen Gerechtigkeit voranging
Du Gefäßder göttlichen Gnaden
Du heiligstes Gefäß, worin das Manna aufbewahrt wurde, das die Pilger in der Wüste dieses Lebens ernährt
Du Tempel Gottes, worin das Licht der heiligen Liebe flammt
Du jungfräuliches Herz, das gleich der Lilie blüht

Du Paradies des göttlichen Bräutigams
Du Quelle göttlicher Erbarmungen
Du Spiegel der Demuth und der Keuschheit
Du unschuldigste Taube, die uns den Ölzweig des ewigen Friedens brachte
Du heiligstes Herz, das du den Gnaden Gottes mit hoechster Treue entsprachest
Du andächtiges Herz, das du alle Worte Jesu höchst treu bewahrest
Du wunderbares Herz, das du Gott und seinen eingeborenen Sohn feuriger denn alle Engel und Menschen liebtest
Du Herz voll des Mitleidens und der Milde
Du süßes Licht der Gerechten
Du Gegenstand der zartesten Liebe aller Auserwählten
Du Hoffnung reuiger Sünder
Du Trost derjenigen, die im Herrn sterben
Du von göttlicher Liebe verwundetes Herz
Du vom Schwert des tiefsten Schmerzens durchbohrtes Herz
Du von heiliger Sehnsucht entflammtes Herz, das sich durch die Gewalt der göttlichen Liebe vom Körper trennte
Du von himmlischer Liebe glühendes Herz, das du gleich einem feurigen Pfeil zu deinem geliebtesten Sohne im Himmel flogest
Du Bewunderung aller Chöre der Engel
Du süßeste Freude des ganzen himmlischen Hofes
Bitt für uns, o heilige Gottesgebärerin!

Footnote 2
Katholischer Katechismus, 1985
Wolfgang Beinert (Hg.), Lexikon der Katholischen Dogmatik, 1991, 354 ff

Footnote 3
Luther Bibel von 1545 :Die Bibel, Die ganze Heilige Schrift des Alten und Neuen Testaments in der deutschen Übersetzung von D. Martin Luther mit Kupferstichen von Matthaeus Merian, Dreieich 1986 und Die Bibel oder die ganze Heilige Schrift des Alten und Neuen Testaments nach der deutschen Übersetzung Martin Luthers, Berlin, Frankfurt, Koeln 1889

Footnote 4
Matthew calls Maria three times by her name (1.16, 1.18, 1.20) and six times he calls her "Mother" (2.21, 12.46-12.50). Luke calls Maria 7 times by her name (1.28, 1.30, 1.34, 1.38, 1.41, 1.46, 1.56). AS for John, he calls her "Mother" 3 times and once "woman."

Footnote 5
Raymond E.Brown,S.S., Mary, the First Disciple,,May 1997 Issue of St.Anthony Messenger Magazine Online

Footnote 6
Elizabeth Johnson,C.S.J., In Search of the Real Mary, 2001

Footnote 7
Lukas,1.29 "Da sie aber jn sahe, erschrak sie uber seine rede, und gedachte, welch ein grus ist das?"

Footnote 8
Lukas,1.28 "Gegruesset seist du holdselige, der Herr ist mit dir, du Gebenedeiete unter den Weibern" und 1.30 "Fürchte dich nicht Maria. Du hast gnade bey Gott funden".
Lukas,1.38 "Maria aber sprach. Siehe. Ich bin des HERRN magd, mir geschehe wie du gesagt hast."

Footnote 9
Protevangelium des Jakobus, Vgl auch

Footnote 10
Gofine, ein katholisches Erbauungsbuch, P.M.v.Cochem, Leben Jesu, Ende 19./Anfang 20. Jh, 154 ff

Footnote 11
Myrrhe is an aromatic spice that the Three Kings from the orient offer to the baby Jesus.

Footnote 12
Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, Bd.1, Herder-Verlag, 1993 , 689 ff Anm. 13

Footnote 13
A hearty thanks are due to Gesa S. Ederberg, Rabbi, Berlin, for pointing out that there was no ceremony called "temple initiation."

Footnote 14
Ökumenisches Heiligenlexikon: Maria - Fest Mariae Tempelgang,

Footnote 15
A warm thank you to for help with this question to Professor Judith R.Baskin, University of Oregnon, who directed me to Ross Shepard Kraemer. "Her
Share of the Blessings," in "Jewish Women in Historical Perspective",1998, second edition, edited by Judith R.Baskin.

Footnote 16
My gratitude goes to Leah Schlechter, with refernce to

Footnote 17
How is Maria represented in Judaism? In Islam?

Footnote 18

Reader comments:

Annunciation iconography
Gordon B. Chamberlain from Redwood City, Calif., U.S.A. wrote on July, 27 2007: Somewhere I have seen an Annunciation--Flemish, I think, the style with very clear sharp detail--in which not only has the Virgin just stopped reading to listen to the angel, but the text she has reached can be identified by a viewer who looks very close. It is, of course, the prophecy in Isaiah that a virgin shall bear a child and call his name Emmanuel. Perhaps you have facilities for tracking this painting down.

You might also mention, just for the fun of it, the tendency of young iconographical Mary to use her finger to hold her place in the Book--not as sinful as leaving it open upside-down, but not good for the binding either.

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