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Saint Anne Teaches Mary to Read

Saint Anne Teaches Mary to Read

Q: Did Saint Anne teach Mary how to read?

A: There are three iconographical motifs to picture Saint Anne:

(1) Saint Anne represented as matron, sometimes holding the child Mary, sometimes as autonomous figure or in the company of Joachim (miraculous conception);

(2) Saint-Anne-Threesome: sitting with Mary on her lap, and the Christ child either on Mary's arm or on Anne's lap/arm;

(3) Saint Anne teaching Mary

This last motif puts emphasis on teaching more than on learning how to read, i.e. Anne's teaching conveys moral spiritual contents. This theme is not present in the so-called apocryphal writings. It is a consequence of theological explanations regarding Mary's role in salvation history, in particular of her Immaculate Conception. This is one of the reasons why this iconographical motif achieved special prominence in post-Reformation times. We may distinguish four specific aspects in Anne's teaching of Mary:

1) Initiation to Mary's role, for example when the book shows a particular scripture text such as: "Audi filia, vide et incline aurem tuam....(Ps 45, 11-12) (English Retablo, Musée de Cluny, Paris, 1335)

2) The teaching of specific virtues such as faith, hope and charity (Dante Gabriele Rossetti, 1849)

3) The teaching of specific skills such as mending, spinning, embroidery, suggested through the presence of specific objects as found, for example, in Murillo

4) Anne seen as sybil, i.e. the visionary Anne, especially in Renaissance renderings of Saint-Anne-Threesomes. Intuiting the Christ child's vocation as redeemer (Passion and death), she - the knowing one - prevents Mary from keeping the Christ Jesus to herself, trying to protect it from suffering. (Sangallo, Dürer, Riemenschneider)

Book, reading or teaching how to read, though making reference to Old Testament contents (Psalms, Proverbs, Wisdom) are mostly anachronistic, that is they reflect contemporary situations of the sixteenth-nineteenth centuries. Some depictions show scrolls instead of books, though. As to how reading was taught, we do not have overwhelming historical evidence regarding Jewish education. There exists a biblical injunction to teach children scripture at home (Deut. 4,9: 6, 7, 11, 19). Mothers took an important part in the education of the children (1 Sam 1, 22-28; 2 Macc. 7, 24f): There is some evidence for teaching Torah to Jewish girls, but in general girls were taught to be good housewives. Exceptions were made for upper-class women. Scripture was frequently taught in oral form (oral Torah) - thus the written text was not always indispensable. On the other hand, it is said that Jewish boys learned to read, at home or in schools, well enough to take part in synagogue services. They would learn the alphabet (twenty-two letters) first, and then proceed directly to the reading of the biblical text. However, Hebrew - lacking- written-vowels reading was necessarily a matter of memory. Scrolls of parts of the Torah (Pentateuch) were available, especially in priest families such as that of Joachim.

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