Learning to read

To celebrate international literacy day, which is coming up on Sunday 8 September and coincides with the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin, here is a collection of images of the Virgin Mary being taught to read by her mother, St Anne.

This was a popular subject for English devotional art, particularly in the fourteenth century. It might well have been represented in Great St Mary’s, given that the Church was dedicated to the Virgin.

  • This East Anglian altar frontal dates from c.1330-1350 and the Education of the Virgin panel has an unusual composition, with Mary’s back to her mother. The two figures here would probably have been echoed by an Annunciation scene at the left-hand side of the altar frontal, which has been lost.
  • This wall painting from the Church of Corby Glen, in Lincolnshire, dates from c.1325 and shows a larger-scale treatment of the same subject – the figure of Mary seems to be reading from a hornbook with her mother’s supportive arm wrapped around her left shoulder.
  • A rare and stunning children’s book, the Primer of Claude of France, survives in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Anne of Brittany (1476-1514) commissioned the manuscript for her daughter Claude (1499-1524) to help her learn to read – the book begins with an alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer. Claude was daughter of King Louis XII of France and heiress to the Duchy of Brittany. She later married her second cousin Francis, who became King Francis I of France.

On this page St Claudius of Besançon, Claude’s patron saint, presents the little girl to the Virgin and St Anne. Claude looks on as St Anne oversees her daughter’s reading lesson but the Virgin seems distracted from her book, as she turns towards Claude and reaches out a hand to her.

Text von Geoffrey Tory geschrieben; von Guido Mazzoni malereien. (Fibel der Claude von Frankreich) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Princess Claude of France Observing St. Anne Educating the Virgin, c.1505-10, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, MS 159, fol. 14. This image is believed to be in the public domain – it is available on Wikimedia Commons under the following attribution: “Text von Geoffrey Tory geschrieben; von Guido Mazzoni malereien. (Fibel der Claude von Frankreich) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons“.

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