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“.

Margaret Beaufort’s Book of Hours

Margaret Beaufort’s own Book of Hours is housed in the Old Library at St John’s College – you can read more about it and view the first page in this short article by YiWen Hon. Aside from the beautiful illustrations, including a lovely historiated initial showing John the Evangelist seemingly taking dictation from his eagle, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is Margaret’s inscription. When she gave it to her friend, Lady Anne Shirley, she signed herself “modyr to the kynge”:

my good lady Shyrley pray for

me that gevythe yow thys booke

y hertely pray yow | Margaret |

modyr to the kynge.

Margaret and the Dragon

Today I’m reading about Margaret Beaufort’s early life – she was already a widow and the mother of the future King Henry VII when she was just thirteen years old.

Leaving aside her links to Great St Mary’s, and her endowment of two Cambridge colleges, I’ve been thinking about that traumatic childbirth. She almost died, and was never to have another child, almost certainly due to injuries sustained during labour.

It’s hardly fantastical to assume that Margaret would have called on her namesake, St Margaret of Antioch, for intervention during the birth – Margaret was the patron saint of childbirth. Thanks to the story that she burst forth from a dragon’s belly unharmed after making the sign of the cross, Margaret was one of the saints most frequently called on, in fervent prayers to protect labouring mother and newborn infant.

An introductory reading list on St Margaret’s 13th century stanzaic Life is available here.

Here are a couple of late 15th century images of the saint which might give an idea of who that thirteen-year-old girl imagined as she called for aid to bring the future King of England into the world.

Alabaster statuette of St Margaret of Antioch, c. 1475, Toulouse. On display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Alabaster statuette of St Margaret of Antioch, c. 1475, Toulouse. On display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – for more detail, see the Met’s website.

Detail of St Margaret from a Book of Hours in the British Library - Harley 2974  f 165v. The manuscript dates from c. 1460-1470, north-east France. More details on the BL's website.

Detail of St Margaret from a Book of Hours in the British Library – Harley 2974 f 165v. The manuscript dates from c. 1460-1470, north-east France. More details on the BL’s website.

The Pious Pelican

We don’t really associate pelicans with gore, but medieval images of the big-beaked birds showed the mother pelican piercing her own breast to revive her chicks with her own lifeblood. In some texts, it’s daddy pelican who does the killing and reviving:

“There is a wonderful thing about the pelican, for never did mother-sheep love her lamb as the pelican loves its young. When the young are born, the parent bird devotes all his care and thought to nourishing them. But the young birds are ungrateful, and when they have grown strong and self-reliant they peck at their father’s face, and he, enraged at their wickedness, kills them all. On the third day the father comes to them, deeply moved with pity and sorrow. With his beak he pierces his own side, until the blood flows forth. With the blood he brings back life into the body of his young.”

– Guillaume le Clerc, 13th Century Bestiary

This makes the point of the story a bit more obvious – the pelican is a symbol for God. Medieval authors loved to use vivid imagery to make religious doctrine more memorable – so bestiary authors represented the Fall of Adam with ungrateful baby pelicans and showed the sacrificial crucifixion of Jesus as the pelican’s reviving blood.

Pelican, Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 32r

Pelican, © Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 32r

What does this have to do with Great St Mary’s? Well, we have a slightly less gory version of the pious pelican way up on one of the roof beams. Once the scaffolding comes down and our new lighting is installed you’ll be able to see it in all its glory! For now, here’s a handy closeup.

GSM pelican on the roof boss

GSM pelican on the roof boss

How many other pelicans can you find around Cambridge? Corpus Christi College and the Perse School are good places to start…

Translation and manuscript image from the Medieval Bestiary.

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