“Either it really exists or else I have conjured it up so often that it might as well. The painting belongs to a familiar genre – that of the pensive figure in the garden . . . A woman in Victorian dress is gazing away from a book that she holds in one hand . . . The painting is, for me, about the book, or about the woman’s reading of the book, and though the contents of the pages are as invisible as her thoughts, they-the imagined fact of them- give the image its appeal.” ( Sven Birkets)
There is another tradition of the reading Virgin, however, in which visual identification with the female reading subject is problematized through the use of iconographic conventions that draw attention to the spatial and temporal complexities of the Annunciation scene. This other tradition of the literate Virgin reaches its apogee in fifteenth-century Flemish panel painting in the work of Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, and Rogier van der Weyden. In these Annunciation paintings the inherently anachronistic scene of Mary reading a “contemporary” book takes place in a hybrid interior space that is furnished from both domestic and ecclesiastical sources. The event of the incarnation of the Word of God occurs simultaneously in narratives of past, present, and future; and it is dramatized with props from multiple systems of signification, which include but also compete with the icon of the holy book before Mary. In other words, she is not dissociated and removed, to the realm of Wittgenstein’s private language, but integral to and conception of unity and coherence.
Erwin Panofsky explains the difference between these Flemish “Primitives” and the work of the Italian painters who were their contemporaries by pointing to an independent genealogy, which had its origins in book illustration from the French court- the Book of Hours by the Limbourg Brothers- and drew on the arts of the miniaturist rather than the muralist. Panofsky presents the history of the orientation of formal elements in visual media as inextricable from the history of book production. To use the terms of a literary critic, these images are also meta-images because the visual text of the woman reading a book is placed within the context of the pages of a “real” book. Of course, these images of the reading subject are also informed by other images of reading and writing in illuminated texts, which include traditional depictions of the apostles shown in the act of writing the Gospels, and therefore may make visual reference to masculine writers rather than feminine readers;
The image of the reading Virgin became a popular subject for book illustration in the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods, particularly as “prayer” became an act of literacy rather than articulate speech. The supplanting of “recitation” by “reading” had other effects on book culture, like the development of dominant prose forms or divisions by chapter, which are also documented in images of the reading Virgin, but the development of popular theology changed the iconography of the ideal reader as well as the ideal text. ( Losh )
Of course, Panofsky’s observations have implications for a reading of the scene with the relationship between class and gender in mind. In previous centuries, when these textual objects were generated for exclusive consumption by a literate high nobility in the form of richly illuminated books, depictions of the manual arts and depictions of reading were generally shown as discrete acts by discrete actors; even if this narrative was formed through the “back door”.
Middle-class literacy was remarkably important in shaping religious iconography of fifteenth-century Flemish painting in a new “prayer-book” culture that was marked by several religious movements, the most important of which was Modern Devotion. As Craig Harbison writes, “What was at least partly being witnessed there was the spread of private devotional practices from clergy to laity. In some ways a difficult, monastically-oriented body of information, and at times speculation, was being assimilated by the populace at large . . . One of the most telling indications of the nature of fifteenth-century piety was the production of various devotional handbooks” . The theological doctrines that were being popularized for a public that could not make reading a primary occupation posed particular hermeneutic difficulties. The populace had to be taught “how to read” not only in the sense of deciphering letters on a page and transforming them into intelligible phonemes; they also had to be taught about the activity of reading as a function of their social roles and the context of reading as an interpretive activity in relationship to traditional forms of religious meditation and public ritual.
Christa Grössinger has argued that fifteenth century Northern Europe considered the “good” woman and the “literate” woman to be synonymous terms. In this semiotic system the cult of Saint Anne flourished and images of her educative role in the life of the Mary, particularly those of her teaching the Virgin to read, were very popular.
For a middle-class literate public, the iconography of a reading Virgin presented a female ideal. A few centuries later, depictions of literate women would emphasize the dangers of reading, particularly as a threat to sexual norms, because imaginative literature could damage the psyche of a naïve literal-minded female reader, and her assumption of autho
to interpret events beyond the text in front of her could disrupt the patriarchal order. In the fifteenth century Lowlands reading probably actually presented a greater threat to class boundaries than to gender boundaries, and women of the middle classes and nobility were actively encouraged to incorporate the Word into the domestic sphere. ( Losh )
Although the Virgin would seem to occupy a more explicitly bourgeois domestic space than in the Dijon Altarpiece, Barbara Lane interprets the Virgin’s act of reading as taking place in the context of a sanctuary. Lane hypothesizes that the niche with the hanging towel and laver at the left of the painting represents the piscina that the priest uses for hand washing and symbolic purification (42-43). The contemporary emphasis in Netherlandish culture on reading as an act of private devotion rather than public empowerment would seem to relegate reading women to non-ecclesiastical space, but Lane’s explanation of the Annunciation scene would place emphasis on its sacramental and communal character. For Lane, the table and its extinguished candle suggest an altar in what would otherwise seem to be a cluttered and claustrophobic interior.
In Van Eyck’s Annunciation the act of reading is a public and even priestly act. The text in the scene is presented to readers not as an object for private meditation in a domestic space but rather as a manual for the public coordination of a worship service. The position of the book on the lectern would have been familiar to attendants at the church mass. To place Mary in this scene would seem to risk heresy, but other depictions of the Virgin in the Annunciation scene go so far as to present her in priests’ robes. And Purtle argues that such presentation is completely consistent with theological doctrine of Mary as God-Bearer and celebrant of transubstantiation.
There is apparently a range of scenarios through which this archetypal female subject can respond to her text. Memling’s Annunciation ( see fig. below ) makes the relationship between the Virgin’s body and her text much more explicit. In the liturgical tradition the Virgin is “praying,” but as prayer becomes a literate act in the Early Modern Period, the iconography of prayer in Netherlandish painting becomes associated with the iconography of reading. The reading woman was a theme that interested Memling; a fragment of one of his earliest attributed paintings, Girl Reading, shows a young woman, perhaps a young Mary, placidly absorbed in her text. The penetration and appropriation of the Virgin body by the word of God brings special significance to these images of the reading woman. In the case of the Virgin, a miracle of transubstantiation is linked to the act of textual appropriation: physical conception and intellectual conception are one, and her interaction with scripture is critical to our interpretation of the scene. As the Word becomes flesh in the Memling Annunciation, we see the Virgin pointing to a page in the text, which is clearly individuated although the letters in the book are simulated . Her gaze is directed not at the angel but at the book. This connection is made clearer by following the lines of sight of the other figures in the scene. In Memling’s Annunciation we see that the gaze of one of the attending angels is focused on her womb, where the word of God is already becoming flesh and swelling below her drapery. Her incorporation of Logos involves both her body and her book.
Elizabeth Losh:Not all of the dramatic content of these Annunciation altarpieces is intended to render an intellectual appreciation for the value of literacy. As Harbison argues, fifteenth-century popular Flemish religion had a decided preference for visionary experience over scholastic knowledge. But it is important to note that Harbison also claims that these visions were inextricable from the reading experience of the lay population. To use Lacanian terms, a modern viewer may see the subject of these Annunciation scenes differently, as texts in which a female Subject must position herself in relation to the Signifier as Logos and to the jouissance of religious ecstasy. The way that our acts of reading are constituted by our contemporary position between the angel and the book, even in a post-book era, deserves a feminist response to Birkirt’s nostalgia for a detached and desocialized female reader.