Sheila: You provided a wonderful introduction to the Vatican Treasures during our recent “Come Together” event with alumni/ae and friends of Saint Mary’s at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Br. Charles. Specifically, you introduced Guercino’s “The Virgin Mary with Infant Jesus and Book in Hands,” as one of your favorite pieces in the exhibit and gave us some helpful historical context for it and other items on display. When I saw the piece up close during our walk-through of the exhibit, I recalled your comments about the anachronism of the book (as the historical Jesus would have learned to read by scroll). I was also struck by how much the Guercino’s work reminded me of so many other paintings of women reading and of them teaching children to read. Most often, in such paintings, the child is also female—a younger version of the mother?—and typically these images represent interior, domestic scenes that display some degree of class privilege. Guercino’s painting is context-less: we see only the heads, shoulders, and hands of mother and infant son, bent over the book they hold together. I puzzled over this. In ancient times, women lacked access to literacy, and even in later centuries where some women had some such access, it was usually a privilege of the elite (and this is still true today in some contexts, of course). I cannot imagine, I thought as I studied the painting, that Mary was actually literate. This, I thought, is an anachronism at least as significant as the bound book!
Br. Charles: Yes, the painting is full of anachronisms. These would have been seen in Guercino’s day as suitable for popular consumption and were in keeping with the dictate of the Council of Trent for Christian artists to portray wholesome scenes that bolster the faith. Mary and Jesus are intent on reading a book, that is, a codex rather than a scroll. This immediately confronts us as out of time and place. But more interesting, certainly, is the portrayal of a literate Mary, which goes against the historical understanding of widespread illiteracy, especially of women, in pre-modern times. We can ask two questions of Guercino. Did he depict a literate Mary out of a pious veneration for the Mother of God, whom, the faithful could presume, God invested with singular graces? It is likely so. Secondly, did Guercino find it easy to do so, acquainted perhaps with literate women of his day? Such women we find either as learned humanists among the wealthy classes or as bookkeepers for their family business enterprises. This conjecture is less likely than the first. It does, however, allow us an interesting anachronism of our own. Jesus did stand in the synagogue and read from the scroll of Law. Maybe a literate Mary isn’t such a stretch after all.
Sheila: These are interesting historical speculations, and your suggestion that depicting Mary as literate was an act of veneration on Guercino’s part is persuasive. This representation also prompts some more theological questions, I think. Historically, Jesus must have learned to read in order to read the Law in the synagogue, as you point out. But what does literacy mean here, theologically? If Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh, as John’s Gospel affirms, then the fact that as an infant Jesus is subjected to wordlessness is really intriguing. Surely Mary would be the baby’s primary teacher of language, of his “mother tongue.” That is women’s traditional role across cultures. That she would also be his tutor in the written word, as Guercino has rendered her, deepens the meaning of that role. Mary, the source of Jesus’s humanity, becomes also the teacher through whom he learns to read and proclaim the divine Word. She, his human mother, is the pathway to his fuller realization as the Son of God. Guercino’s mother and child, then, might be seen as a deep and theologically intriguing act of veneration. He portrays Mary as Jesus re-entry into the Word made sound, made text.
Br. Charles: Sheila, in your calling Mary the medium of Jesus as Word and text, you have enriched my understanding of Mary as the symbol of the Church dispensing grace through the sacraments. When I consider all those images of Madonna and Child that adorn medieval sanctuaries, I will now think of them as symbols of the Church offering Christ not only in the Eucharist but also in the Liturgy of the Word. Thanks for giving fresh meaning to Mary as the Seat of Wisdom.
Sheila: And many thanks to you, Br. Charles, for introducing me to the image that inspired this insight!
photo credit: Evergreen Exhibitions, Vatican Splendors: A Journey through Faith and Art (San Antonio, TX: 2015)