Well Read Mary

As we continue considering Virgin Mary symbolism in art during the month of May, it is interesting to note how in so many famous paintings of Mary, she is reading a book. What is she reading, and why?

Mary Reads During the Annunciation

We often see Mary reading in paintings of the Annunciation, as the Angel Gabriel appears to her to inform her that she will give birth to God’s son – despite the fact that she is a virgin. Therefore, according to the precedent set for this in the Hebrew Bible, in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah, many artists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance have her meditating on the verse Isaiah 7:14 “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son” ( Dupré 53.)

The Annunciation Guiseppe Mazzolini 1846

Mary's Reading and her Wisdom

The Virgin Reading Vittore Carpaccio

The early Church “Fathers” associated her persistent biblical reading with wisdom, placing her status once again squarely within the traditional symbolic significance of ancient Goddess figures like Inanna, Astarte, and Isis, and later patriarchal versions like Minerva and Athena. In the third century, CE, Origen regards her as “assiduous in reading and meditating on Scripture,” which renders her “rich in faith and persevering in spiritual knowledge”  (Gambero, 78).  Jerome viewed Mary’s literary activity to her meditative nature, based on her tendency to “ponder in her heart” throughout the Gospel of Luke.  

Mary's Reading and her Virginity

However, in the Christian patriarchal tradition, Mary’s wisdom is closely associated with her virginity. In the fourth century, Athanasius hailed her as as “wise virgin,” and in the same paragraph proclaimed, “Neither did she lose her virginity when she gave the Savior to the world; to the contrary, she preserved it intact like a precious treasure” (Gambero, 100).

Later in the fourth century, Ambrose of Milan went so far as to say that “She did not desire the company of other women when she was being kept company by holy thoughts. She felt even less alone when she was by herself. Indeed, how could she be alone in the company of so many books, so many archangels, so many prophets?”(Gambero, 201).

Mary Reading by Lorenzo Costa 1460 - 1535

Is Mary an Open or Closed Book?

The Annunciation Simone Martini

So, the really interesting thing about all this that we see in historical Marian works of art, is that in the painting and images where she is seen with a book open, her wisdom tends to be a focus of the painting – whether it be when she seems to be reading to Jesus, or reading in spite of his playful attempts to draw her attention away from her book, or even when she is reading during her assumption and coronation as Queen of Heaven and Earth. However, in paintings where she is holding or sitting near a closed book, the focus of the painting is her virginity. This parallels the association of Mary with an enclosed garden or sealed fountain.

Here are a couple of questions for us to ponder in our hearts:

  1. What does the association of Mary’s intellectual pursuits and wisdom with her “perpetual virginity” say about the Euro-Western Christian attitude about womanhood in general?

  2. Does this affect our lives today?

Feel free to share your views on this in the Comments box below.

Peace, Grace, and Abundance,


Mary still reading after her Assumption and during her Coronation as Queen of Heaven! Antonello de Messina

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