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St. Anne & the Education of the Virgin Mary 14th-15th Centuries


Grammar and St. Anne, as telling images of teaching, dominated the pedagogical field of the medieval imagination. They attained to recognition in the public eye; they found welcome in settings open to view, accessible to the literate and illiterate alike. Prudence, also esteemed in the role of teacher, spoke mainly to judgment; she was less a tutor to the eye than to the ear. If visual presence in the fabric of churches is in any way proportional to popularity, Prudence was far less popular than Grammar, who offered demonstrable skill, or than the more motherly St. Anne. Prudence taught in manuscripts, and manuscripts were seen almost exclusively by the literate. Even in manuscripts, when Prudence performed a teaching role, she preferred a verbal existence to a pictorial presence, ever eluding distinctive delineation. When Prudence does appear personified as teacher, she might be mistaken for Grammar.

Grammar enjoyed seniority status as teacher. First of the liberal arts, Grammar was described by Martianus Capella as elderly and as "she," the latter accident befitting her linguistic femininity. Grammatica, it is true, was not always depicted as feminine. Michael Evans has called attention to masculine imagery of the arts, including Grammar, thereby revealing occasional collisions between variant usage and Grammar's normal accidents. How the paradoxical masculine Grammatica relates to the oxymoronic normal accident is a question beyond the scope of this discussion.

Grammar's ambition for a place in the sun was realized toward the middle of the twelfth century, when, with her students, and in the company of her sister artes, she achieved installation on an arch over a western portal of Chartres cathedral. There she could demonstrate her classroom management skills to visitors. Before her installation at Chartres, she had been known to students of certain manuscripts. As a discipline, ars grammatica was, of course, "the first subject for every student at universities all over Europe from the twelfth century onward." The Chartres position offered more; it lifted her from scholarly obscurity to worldly notoriety, which continued to grow as she and her sisters were given place at Notre Dame in Paris, at the cathedrals of Laon, Sens, Auxerre, the Freiburg münster (am Breisgau), and elsewhere.

Visitors to Chartres were welcomed into the cathedral by the artes, saints, even by the Madonna. Inside, as they reached the crossing, they might find St. Anne and the Virgin beaming upon them, glowing through the glass of the great northern window. It was as mother and child, however, not as teacher and learner, that this monumental image would command attention.

St. Anne's rise to popularity as educator began nearly two centuries after the Chartres figures were installed. On the point of timing, the Benedictine monks of St. Augustine's Abbey, Ramsgate, would find ample documentation for estimating that St. Anne's cultus "did not become general until the 14th century was well advanced." Less sure is their assertion that "St. Anne is usually represented as teaching her little daughter to read the Bible," the subject to which the remainder of this exposition is devoted.


How alike, how different is the iconography of "St. Anne teaching the Virgin to read"? Variety is evident even when a sampling is limited to works of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, which delimit the temporal scope of this inquiry. The imperious St. Anne of Marsh Baldon (Oxfordshire), who extends a directive forefinger at a text, contrasts strikingly with the solicitous, motherly St. Anne of Beckley (Oxfordshire), who embraces daughter and text. Differing from the imperious and the solicitous types are the dutiful St. Annes, found in many fifteenth-century manuscripts, who sit listening patiently to the child reading aloud. Nor are these three types the only ones to be seen. Another image suggests a prescient St. Anne, one who looks beyond the childhood of the girl standing before her. This St. Anne is a seer of her daughter's destiny, one who foretells, as though in preparation for the Annunciation yet to come.

Components of the imagery. Some inferences concerning Anne's teaching and Mary's lesson depend upon the interrelations of five iconographic elements, to wit: Mary's (estimated) age and gestures, Anne's gestures, the positions of Anne and Mary, the text that occupies their attention. Other inferences depend on attention to iconographic context, and still others, to broader considerations, such as textual traditions and cultural symbolism. Wendy Scase and Pamela Sheingorn, respectively, have taken inquiry deep into the latter areas. For purposes of the present discussion, however, it may be enough to concentrate on the elements of age, gesture, position, and text, relating them in a few instances to companion themes.

Mary's Age. Artists entertained a notable age-range for the Virgin as they imagined her lesson. She might be represented as a very young child in arms, although rarely, it would seem. Imagery of Mary in Anne's arms is richly precedented, as the Chartres' glass shows, but it is exceptional in representations of Mary's lesson. When at her lesson, Mary is much more often represented as a young child or in middle childhood. Sometimes she is portrayed closer to the teens, and in one instance she is shown budding into puberty. Estimates of age must be based mainly on the relative scale of Anne and Mary. Yet scale is not a perfect indicator: perspective, style, symbolism, artist ineptitude may contribute to misapprehension. Hankering after a simple, totally reliable index is chastened, for example, when the slightly pubescent Virgin from Ste. Colombe-les-Vienne (15th c) gracefully declines conformity with the projected norm. She comes up short in stature, so to speak, when stature is compared to bust line. Still, the Ste. Colombe-les-Vienne example appears to be exceptional among the types surveyed.

Mary's gestures. Mary's gestures are variable within a limited range. She may simply hold an open text (frequent), or actively point into it with a finger or hand (frequent) or point with a fescue (frequent). If a fescue is included, it is the younger Mary who would most likely use it. Artists usually focus Mary's attention directly on the text, but in some cases she looks toward St. Anne, perhaps indicating that Anne is speaking.

Anne's postures and gestures. Anne's postures and gestures are more variable than Mary's. Anne may sit or stand. She may hold the lesson text, or she may both hold it and point into it, or she may point with one hand and support or embrace Mary with her other hand or arm. She may gesture with one or both hands. She may look into the text, or at Mary, or she may look away, possibly at the viewer, possibly into the distance, as though in contemplation.

Positions of Anne and Mary. The positions of teaching and learning attributed to Anne and Mary consist of four main patterns: standing, sitting, apart, or close. St. Anne might stand behind Mary or they may stand facing one another. Mary in her childhood always stands at her lesson. Whether Anne is standing or seated, a clear majority of images (over 57% of the sampling) represent mother and daughter physically close. Body contact is extensive. Anne may embrace or shelter Mary, as a protectress. When Anne is seated and Mary stands beside her, Mary usually leans against Anne's lap. Among less popular conventions, a small proportion (11%) represent Anne and Mary in limited physical contact. Less than a third of the images (22 out of 70) represent Anne and Mary apart. Of these, most are concentrated in fifteenth-century illuminations which depict Anne and Mary indirectly in physical contact, holding their book in common (rarely a scroll) rather than holding to one another.

The text. Christian iconography commonly represents saints with a book. It is not a discriminating attribute. The book held by most saints would be the New Testament or both Old and New. What text would Anne and Mary hold? It might be a Psalter or a book of Hours. It occupies a prominent place in the lesson iconography; it may rest on a lectern, but it is usually held by Mary or by Anne or by both. When Anne is seated, the book usually rests on her lap or knees. Few extant representations of the book inscribe anything legible on its pages. Most show blank pages; a few show dots or scribbles.


Anne's teaching and Mary's lessons. An unusually clear indication of Mary's lesson content appears in manuscript 94 in the collection of St. John's College (Oxford), wherein the illuminator depicts Mary as an infant in arms holding a horn book. (This iconography may be unique.) No lesson is in progress; it has either passed or is in prospect. Mary's age level and her hornbook testify that she is at the very first stage of learning to read. (Historically, horn book content consisted of letters, sometimes syllables as well; it might also include the Pater Noster.)

Three other examples suggest an interest in basic literacy, although none is entirely persuasive that literacy is the focal interest, let alone the paramount interest. Two of the examples are in stained glass, one in a manuscript. Both of the examples in glass are imperfect: Mary's head is missing from the glass in the Queenhill church; misguided restoration imposed a male head on St. Anne in the glass of the church at Mulbarton. The Queenhill example is more convincing as a rehearsal of the alphabet, given that Mary points with a fescue at individual letters, while Anne simply helps hold the book with her left hand and presumably supports Mary with her right. Mary's estimated head height suggests a stature about the level of Anne's chest, surely below her shoulder. Shoulder level would suggest an age too advanced for alphabet learning.

The Mulbarton example is more difficult to interpret, less because of the male head on Anne's body than because of the incongruous proportions of Anne and Mary; Anne is too short, Mary too tall. The text shows individual letters, which impressed G. M. Rushforth as alphabet, but some of the letters conjoin in ways that do not correspond to horn book syllables.

Most of the imagery reviewed represents Mary in her years of early childhood (c 38%) or middle childhood (c 38%). Some of the imagery attributes a fescue to Mary, which suggests reading letter by letter or word by word. Such ingredients in the imagery support the idea that Mary is in the early stages of learning to read. She may be reading aloud. If Anne is also pointing to text, the imagery may at once represent two phases of a lesson, reading performance and instruction (or correction).


Anne teaching. Visual evidence of Anne in the act of teaching occurs when artists depict her pointing a finger at a text or as gesturing with one or both hands. When only Anne points into a text, it is often not clear whether she is pointing to a letter, a word, or a whole passage. Hence, the significance of the pointing is indeterminate. Visual representation of Anne announcing an idea or explaining a text, as opposed to indicating a single letter, is less doubtful when she points with one hand and gestures with the other or gestures with both.

An advanced lesson appears to be in progress in a well known panel painting of St. Anne teaching Mary, housed in the Cluny Museum (Paris). Anne points to a legible text that introduces complex ideas: "Audi filia et vide et inclinaurem tuam quia concupuit rex speciem tuam" ("Harken, O daughter and see, and incline thine ear, for a king shall desire thy beauty") Such content would be incomprehensible to a young child and otherwise inappropriate to her age. Nor is Mary depicted here as a young child. Her height attains at least to Anne's shoulder, a stature suggesting pre- or early teens, signaling readiness for the lesson at hand.

An advanced lesson is also indicated in an illuminated fifteenth-century manuscript in the Pierpont Morgan collection (M 198). Here Anne points outside the porch where she sits teaching a Mary whose childlike stature does not accord with the character of the lesson. Atop a hill in the misty distance three crosses are vaguely discernible. This intimation of Golgotha is exceptional in the iconography of Mary's lesson. It goes beyond anticipating the Annunciation, moving attention, as it does, to the darkest hours of the Christian drama. No other work in the present sampling duplicates it.


St. Anne and Grammar. Images of Anne seated, book on lap, embracing the Virgin with one arm, are particularly reminiscent of gentle Grammars. Réau proposed the relationship, but limited his references to late examples. Partly for this reason, Scase dismissed the suggestion. Yet, the suggestion is not without credibility. At least one thirteenth-century model of a gentle Grammar exists in France, sculpted on a window frame on the western façade of the Cathedral of Laon (c 1230), drawing by Pegard for Viollet-le-Duc. 50 Thirteenth-century models exist in Italy, e.g., Siena, Cathedral pulpit base, sculpted by Nicola Pisano, 1266-68; Giovanni Pisano's Fontana Maggiore (c 1278) in Perugia. Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Grammar in Siena's Palazzo Publico dates from 1338-39. Although it is true that medieval Grammars taught boys, artistic skill would be little taxed in changing the sex of a child figure, substituting the little Virgin for the anonymous little boy.


The centrality of the book in much of the Anne and Mary imagery has attracted scholarly attention, leading to a suggestion that literacy was an intended theme. It is a reasonable interpretation of some of the imagery. Literacy or potential literacy does indeed seem to be a central theme in St. John's ms 94, although a coordinate theme might be the Virgin's precocity, given her babe-in-arms age status. Still the phrasing may mislead interpretation. Focal interest in the book is weak evidence of an exaltation of literacy per se. Imagery of St. Anne teaching Mary conjoins more readily other functions, viz., vivifying Christian narratives (e.g., prelude to the Annunciation, revelation), standard-setting (i.e., exemplifying periodic, single-minded dedication to religious text, as in books of hours), parental modeling (e.g., the good mother rearing her daughter in religion and morals), pointing to religious calling (e.g., mothers preparing daughters for convent life; nuns, i.e., spiritual mothers, teaching oblates, novitiates, or seculars), perhaps celebrating the role of teaching girls in the convent.

Imagery of St. Anne as teacher came within the imaginative borders of monastic life. The Abbey of Stanley (Wiltshire), for example, featured it on the Abbey's official seal. The historical record shows that mothers, daughters, sisters-i.e., biological kin-sometimes resided in the same convent. It follows that biological mothers or spiritual mothers might teach their daughters or spiritual daughters in convent settings, whether in classes or private tutorials.

Looking into a fifteenth-century book of hours (ms 330, f.85, Pierpont Morgan Library), we find a type of St. Anne iconography which approaches the classroom topos. Anne and her three daughters occupy space formally defined by architecture, palatial surroundings marked by ecclesiastical features, spiritual in tone, but institutionally non-specific. The Virgin's two sisters sit low at the side of the room, open books on their laps. St. Anne's grand chair is a seat of authority or wisdom. Holding an open book on her lap, Anne clasps Mary's steepled hands. A little school might be in session. The iconographic ingredients can be read as representing a special kind of classroom. In this imagery of St. Anne and the Virgin, the roles of mother and "classroom" teacher harmonize, providing, perhaps, an expression welcome to would-be "spiritual" mothers teaching their daughters.


To summarize very briefly, a survey of more than seventy works conventionally labeled as "St Anne teaching the Virgin to Read" reveals an iconography far more diverse than the label might suggest. Not a uniform convention, several types appear in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Virgin may be depicted as though newly emerged from infancy or as verging on teenage, although middle to late childhood appears to be the norm. "Teaching" has been visualized in images ranging from gentle, motherly coaching in the alphabet, to specifically pointed instruction, to gestured explanation requiring both hands, to discovery or revelation. Anne sometimes occupies a chair, perhaps a seat of wisdom or authority, as might be occupied by a learned teacher. The Virgin's lessons likewise range from alphabet to complex texts. The fescue often in her hand suggests elementary learning, i.e., alphabet or single words. If Anne as loving teacher owes a debt to any antecedent convention, the gentle grammars known to Laon, Siena, Perugia, and elsewhere would be likely candidates, not the tough grammar of Chartres or her descendants. With regard to function, the imagery further humanized the Christian story, modeled parental care to literacy-presumably in religion and morals, modeled devotions, perhaps celebrated spiritual parenthood, such as might be represented in the parental home or in the convent. Clearly, it appealed to several important interests.

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