Elizabeth Losh

University of California, Irvine

January 20, 2001
Between the Angel and the Book: The Female Reading Subject of Early Modern Flemish Annunciation Painting

"I have in my mind an image – a painting," Sven Birkerts writes in The Gutenberg Elegies. "Either it really exists or else I have conjured it up so often that it might as well. The painting belongs to a familiar genre – that of the pensive figure in the garden . . . A woman in Victorian dress is gazing away from a book that she holds in one hand . . . The painting is, for me, about the book, or about the woman’s reading of the book, and though the contents of the pages are as invisible as her thoughts, they (the imagined fact of them) give the image its appeal."

The current debate about the end of the printed book with the rise of electronic text is to some degree structured around such images of the female reader. For Birkerts, this figure of the female reading subject is "planted in one reality, the garden setting while adrift in the spell of another" and thereby represents an archetypal reader as "suspended in the medium of language" (77-78). The nostalgic pastoralism and meditative detachment of Birkerts’ woman reading in the garden would seem to be diametrically opposed to the iconography of feminist utopianism that Donna Haraway constructs by analyzing the painting of the female cyborg at the end of "The Promises of Monsters." In Haraway’s exemplary visual text the gaze of the female subject is aimed directly at the viewer, and she is shown fused with her technological and interpretive apparatus through the interface of her computer keyboard (Figure 1).

Despite its superficial Victorian trappings, the iconography of the image that Birkerts alludes to is likely derived from an older image of female purity and piety: the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to a reading Virgin Mary, which is often shown in a hortus conclusus or enclosed garden from the Song of Songs. One owner of a fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript, Maria of Gueldern, was even depicted in this pose of reading in the garden with two attending angels, perhaps in anticipation of being blessed with children herself (Figure 2).

There is another tradition of the reading Virgin, however, in which visual identification with the female reading subject is problematized through the use of iconographic conventions that draw attention to the spatial and temporal complexities of the Annunciation scene. This other tradition of the literate Virgin reaches its apogee in fifteenth-century Flemish panel painting in the work of Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, and Rogier van der Weyden. In these Annunciation paintings the inherently anachronistic scene of Mary reading a "contemporary" book takes place in a hybrid interior space that is furnished from both domestic and ecclesiastical sources. The event of the incarnation of the Word of God occurs simultaneously in narratives of past, present, and future; and it is dramatized with props from multiple systems of signification, which include but also compete with the icon of the holy book before Mary.

Erwin Panofsky explains the difference between these Flemish "Primitives" and the work of the Italian painters who were their contemporaries by pointing to an independent genealogy, which had its origins in book illustration from the French court and drew on the arts of the miniaturist rather than the muralist. Panofsky presents the history of the orientation of formal elements in visual media as inextricable from the history of book production. To use the terms of a literary critic, these images are also meta-images because the visual text of the woman reading a book is placed within the context of the pages of a "real" book. Of course, these images of the reading subject are also informed by other images of reading and writing in illuminated texts, which include traditional depictions of the apostles shown in the act of writing the Gospels, and therefore may make visual reference to masculine writers rather than feminine readers; although illustrations of reading women from Sappho to Saint Barbara can also be assumed to be influential in developing the visual iconography of the female reader.

The image of the reading Virgin became a popular subject for book illustration in the Late Medieval and Early Modern periods, particularly as "prayer" became an act of literacy rather than articulate speech. The supplanting of "recitation" by "reading" had other effects on book culture, like the development of dominant prose forms or divisions by chapter (Huizinga 295), which are also documented in images of the reading Virgin, but the development of popular theology changed the iconography of the ideal reader as well as the ideal text.

Jean Pucelle’s Annunciation panel in the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux is key to Panofsky’s argument, because it reconfigures the two-dimensional plane of the page with the three-dimensional architecture of the Virgin’s chamber, thereby creating opportunities for multiple apertures and enclosures that suggest both exterior and interior spaces (Figure 3). Although the lectern of the Virgin has receded into the background, books and reading are still important motifs in the scene: in the bottom left corner we can see the female patron reading inside the capital "D."

By the end of the fourteenth century this new visual style manifests itself in altarpiece scale oil painting in the work of Melchior Broederlam (Figure 4). Like the illustrations in illuminated manuscripts, the image of the Annunciation is constructed through multiple perspectives that show an externalized "cutaway" view of internal space. Panofsky notes that Broederlam’s Annunciation is a transitional piece in which the iconography of the manual Virgin and the iconography of the literate Virgin intersect:

As in most contemporary renderings of the scene, the main attribute of the Annunciate is a prayer book, here placed on the lectern before her. But, in contrast to all these representations, she holds in her left hand a skein of purple wool . . . In Early Christian, Byzantine, and High Medieval art, the Annunciate is, therefore, often represented with a spindle. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, allusions to her manual occupation had normally disappeared from renderings of the Annunciation (131) Of course, Panofsky’s observations have implications for a reading of the scene with the relationship between class and gender in mind. In previous centuries, when these textual objects were generated for exclusive consumption by a literate high nobility in the form of richly illuminated books, depictions of the manual arts and depictions of reading were generally shown as discrete acts by discrete actors.

Middle-class literacy was remarkably important in shaping religious iconography of fifteenth-century Flemish painting in a new "prayer-book" culture that was marked by several religious movements, the most important of which was Modern Devotion. As Craig Harbison writes, "What was at least partly being witnessed there was the spread of private devotional practices from clergy to laity. In some ways a difficult, monastically-oriented body of information, and at times speculation, was being assimilated by the populace at large . . . One of the most telling indications of the nature of fifteenth-century piety was the production of various devotional handbooks" (87). The theological doctrines that were being popularized for a public that could not make reading a primary occupation posed particular hermeneutic difficulties. The populace had to be taught "how to read" not only in the sense of deciphering letters on a page and transforming them into intelligible phonemes; they also had to be taught about the activity of reading as a function of their social roles and the context of reading as an interpretive activity in relationship to traditional forms of religious meditation and public ritual.

In fifteenth-century Flanders, the domestic education of women was beginning to include literacy training, and this training was reflected in the visual ephemera of the culture. For example, a page of a manuscript now in the British Library shows a group of middle-class Netherlandish women holding books and kneeling before a seated female teacher who may be preparing to administer corporal punishment to the student seated closest to her. The facing page shows upper case and lower case ABC’s. From this image and other popular images of the education of women, Christa Grössinger has argued that fifteenth century Northern Europe considered the "good" woman and the "literate" woman to be synonymous terms. In this semiotic system the cult of Saint Anne flourished and images of her educative role in the life of the Mary, particularly those of her teaching the Virgin to read, were very popular.

For a middle-class literate public, the iconography of a reading Virgin presented a female ideal. A few centuries later, depictions of literate women would emphasize the dangers of reading, particularly as a threat to sexual norms, because imaginative literature could damage the psyche of a naïve literal-minded female reader, and her assumption of authority to interpret events beyond the text in front of her could disrupt the patriarchal order. In the fifteenth century Lowlands reading probably actually presented a greater threat to class boundaries than to gender boundaries, and women of the middle classes and nobility were actively encouraged to incorporate the Word into the domestic sphere. Broederlam’s painting comes early in this process and presents the act of reading as both public and private, while minimizing its importance in comparison to traditional domestic manual arts.

In images of the Annunciation, the Virgin Mary functioned as an ideal reader for both laywomen and nuns, but the actual text presented as the object of consumption in the scene was not necessarily particularized. Henk van Os uses the visual analysis of religious images by a fourteenth century friar in the Meditationes Vitae Christi to point out how multiple texts could be imagined in the Annunciation scene:

The original purpose of including her book was to recall the prophecy of Isaiah, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive", but the author of the Meditationes suggests another meaning. On the authority of none other than St. Jerome, one of the Fathers of the Church, he states that Mary had spent much of her life in prayer, and that she was holding a prayer-book. As the author intended, this interpretation made the Virgin a very suitable rôle-model for nuns. Some of the books that Mary holds in Annunciation scenes accordingly display the opening words of the Hours of the Virgin, which could be repeated by the worshipper ‘off stage’. (Van Os 19-20) The Merode Altarpiece actually presents Mary with more than one text in the scene of reading: the book she reads, a book on the table, and an open scroll


The Merode Altarpiece also presents reading as an activity to be done in the architecture of a fully enclosed space (Figure 5). The proportions of the "room" of the Annunciation scene, which occupies the large central panel, are radically foreshortened, but the painter’s choice of lines of sight demonstrates development in unified perspective that is totally unlike the illuminated manuscripts of the French court. The painter also uses individual panels to shape the visual field of the altarpiece: the left panel shows the donors "outside" in the historical present, and the right panel shows Joseph as a carpenter in another interior "room" with windows that open onto an anachronous urban landscape. Now it is Joseph who is occupied with "manual" labors, while the Virgin is so absorbed in the activity of devotional reading that she has not yet noticed Gabriel’s entrance in priest’s robes.

In the three decades that separate the Dijon Altarpiece from the Merode Altarpiece, Flemish painting has undergone a dramatic transition, and objects of daily life and sacred ritual are rendered with new techniques and pigments in oil painting that reflect the luxuriousness of the commodities of Flemish culture. This also changes the way that the viewer "reads" the symbolic content of the painting, as objects that serve as religious signifiers serve other than allegorical purposes in the scene. The vase with lilies that signifies the Virgin’s purity is presented as a three-dimensional object with a glossy surface that in turn merits "reading" itself with a line of letters up its side. Although the text of the open book on the table is fictive, we can clearly see a capital "D" and "A" on its pages like those on other books by later Flemish painters. (It is likely that this Annunciation was painted by Robert Campin, perhaps with the assistance of a young Rogier van der Weyden.) This new "legibility" creates problems and possibilities in the viewer’s activity of reading the visual text.

Although the Virgin would seem to occupy a more explicitly bourgeois domestic space than in the Dijon Altarpiece, Barbara Lane interprets the Virgin’s act of reading as taking place in the context of a sanctuary. Lane hypothesizes that the niche with the hanging towel and laver at the left of the painting represents the piscina that the priest uses for hand washing and symbolic purification (42-43). The contemporary emphasis in Netherlandish culture on reading as an act of private devotion rather than public empowerment would seem to relegate reading women to non-ecclesiastical space, but Lane’s explanation of the Annunciation scene would place emphasis on its sacramental and communal character. For Lane, the table and its extinguished candle suggest an altar in what would otherwise seem to be a cluttered and claustrophobic interior.

Unlike the female reading subject of the Merode Altarpiece, the Virgins of Rogier van der Weyden’s Annunciation paintings are not absorbed in the contemplation of the texts before them (Figures 6 and 7). In the deep space that characterizes Van der Weyden’s work, each Mary acknowledges the presence of Gabriel with a head inclined away from the book and a gesture of the raised right hand. In the earlier painting, Van der Weyden introduces some significant elements into the Annunciation iconography. To denote purity, the vase of lilies is present but so too is a carafe of clear liquid, which may also represent an alchemical union of the sexes. This may be the first representation of the Virgin in the thalamus or bedroom of which Ludolf the Carthusian speaks as separate from the secretarium cubiculum, an oratory or place of worship, and the conclavus or sealed room in the house of Nazarath (De Vos 199). As the bride of Christ, Mary’s position in the bedroom still links her to spaces of public worship, and in Van der Weyden’s later painting the "domestic" interior has ecclesiastical architectural features like a rose window and a vaulted ceiling. Late in the Flemish Primitive tradition, we see an utterly bourgeois thalamus that serves as the space of the Virgin reading in the work of Joos van Cleve, complete with tacked-up holy pictures and ostentatious furnishings (Figure 8). Even her book is colorful and richly illustrated; unlike the earlier books of the Flemish masters, which limited the palette of ink to black and red, this book has yellow and green on its pages and a decorative border that reflects contemporary improvements in book production for mass consumption, and may dramatize the difference between pre-Gutenberg and post-Gutenberg Flemish painting.

If the act of the Virgin reading would seem to be associated with the space of reading, the depiction of that space has particular implications for the social and political context in which images of women's literacies can be understood. The space of the thalamus may also be presented as cloistered, sparsely furnished, and cut off from any orientation to the public commerce of the world outside, as it is in the work of Gerard David (Figure 9). Following Panofsky and the argument that painting of the period focuses on private rather than public devotions, images of women reading can also represent the normalized retreat of women from the public sphere rather than their preparation for it through literacy.

The presentation of narrative time in the Annunciation scene suggests a more complex temporal orientation for the female reading subject as well. Images of the Annunciation are inextricable from the Biblical narrative, and are therefore part of an orderly sequence of images and narratives. But that event is also presented as an event that has "always already" occurred, so that the event simultaneously is predicted and completed for purposes of future interpretations.

In other words, the Annunciation is situated so that the past is radically present in the scene as prophecy, and the future is present too in the infinite iterations of transubstantiation and dramatic annunciation in the Mass. This is made explicit by the way that books and inscriptions are presented in the iconography of the scene. For example, the conventional text that the Virgin is supposed to be reading is the passage from Isaiah 7:14 that predicts her conception with the Christ child: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold a young woman shall conceive and bear a son" (Van Os 20). In the panels above the Annunciation scene in the Ghent altarpiece prophetic texts unroll over the heads of kneeling sybils and book-wielding prophets Zechariah and Michah (Figure 14).

From the other end of the temporal spectrum, the "future" of the contemporary fifteen-century present, many depictions of Gabriel, like those of Van Eyck and Van der Weyden show the angel uttering a golden text ("Ave gratia plena") that would have immediately read to a contemporary viewer as the opening lines of the Angelus in the liturgical drama of the Missa Aurea that was given as a theatrical presentation by two boys during Advent (Purtle 46-48).

The contextualization of the Annunciation painting as part of a larger altarpiece, as many of them are, might seem to offer the scene of reading as part of a progression of separable narrative events. For example, despite its anachronisms, Dirc Bout's Triptych of the Virgin leads the viewer through a logical temporal sequence from left to right: Annunciation, Visitation, and Nativity (Figure 10). But even Bouts’ relatively straightforward presentation of three diachronic narrative events is viewed through the synchronic structure of the grisaille arch with figures from the Old and New Testaments. And a general interpretive strategy of seeking a consistent temporal narrative order in altarpiece panel is likely to be frustrated, as even the limited sample of paintings for this essay shows.

The problematic construction of temporality in spatial terms is perhaps most clearly articulated by the Washington Annunciation of Jan van Eyck in which the Virgin’s act of reading takes place in a church with a ruined ceiling, which is decorated with narrative elements from the Hebrew Scriptures (Figure 11). Unlike earlier Flemish painters, Van Eyck stages the scene of reading in a much more explicitly ecclesiastical setting, although it is one that has fallen into disrepair and is therefore no longer constituted as "public" space. This may, in fact, be the first time that the Annunciation scene is staged in a church in Flemish painting. However Carolyn Purtle argues in a recent Art Bulletin article that there is a tradition in manuscript illumination that makes the connection between the Virgin’s body and the "body" of the church explicit. For Purtle, as the Holy Spirit enters the body of the reading Virgin in the moment of Annunciation, it also enters the church, which is manifested as both a physical edifice and a community of worshippers.

Like the Broederlam Annunciation, Van Eyck’s Annunciation places the act of reading in the context of both Gothic and Romanesque architecture. Interpretations that assume a simple correlation of these architectural styles to the symbolic order of coexisting New Law and Old Law ignore the evidence of contemporary mixed architectures in the extant churches of Tournai. And, unlike Bouts, Van Eyck is careful to choose only Old Testament images for the grisaille work, so that the church is clearly an edifice of Old Law. Studies of the revisions that the artist made in the composition process would seem to support the argument that Van Eyck intentionally built temporal references into the mise-en-scène of the painting during revision (Gifford 112, 115). Purtle argues that contemporary viewers would have also recognized elements of their own Christian "present" in the pre-Christian scene of Mary at the lectern. The Virgin even raises her arms in a gesture that would have been familiar to its audience as the expansus manibus position recommended in liturgical directives.

In Van Eyck’s Annunciation the act of reading is a public and even priestly act. The text in the scene is presented to readers not as an object for private meditation in a domestic space but rather as a manual for the public coordination of a worship service. The position of the book on the lectern would have been familiar to attendants at the church mass. To place Mary in this scene would seem to risk heresy, but other depictions of the Virgin in the Annunciation scene go so far as to present her in priests’ robes. And Purtle argues that such presentation is completely consistent with theological doctrine of Mary as God-Bearer and celebrant of transubstantiation.

Reading, of course, is also an act of attention. From this limited number of paintings in this particular fifteenth-century tradition, it would seem that the more that the activity of the reading Virgin is constituted by the space of public worship, the more her attention is directed to gestures of ritual rather than close reading. In a work of visual art questions of attention as it is manifested through gaze are critical, and the way that the viewer interprets the Virgin’s gaze directs his or her gaze in and through the Annunciation scene. To demonstrate this point I would like to provide some extended analysis of two Annunciation scenes set in the thalamus: one by Petrus Christus (Figure 12) and one by Hans Memling (Figure 13). In both of these works our attention is directed to the book as a represented object with a particular page or pages: in the Petrus Christus painting the Virgin is either turning a page or displaying the page to the viewer; in the Memling painting she gestures to an open page on the lectern. If we compare these paintings to the Gerard David painting (Figure 9), in which the Virgin has allowed the pages to close even though the book is nominally open, the difference between text as a uniform icon and text as a site of multiple texts becomes clearer.

The Christus painting shows the Virgin reading in an interior space that opens onto a set of exterior spaces. Unlike the Van der Weyden Annunciation from the Columba altarpiece that shows a closed and possibly locked door to the Virgin’s chamber, this Annunciation shows a large and airy entrance that opens onto what would seem to be the hortus conclusus of the other Annunciation tradition, and behind that bricked in grassy space the scene takes in the commerce of boat traffic going by. In Petrus’s copies of the paintings of other Flemish painters, he removed inscriptions and other extraneous textual information, so that, in the words of Panofsky, Christus "made his version more readable" with "simple vernacular language" (309). The generic iconography is clear, and it includes the Holy Ghost as dove above the Virgin’s head and the vase of lilies in the foreground. But in this painting the Virgin’s gesture is more difficult to interpret, and less clearly analogous to others in the genre. Is she turning a page or displaying it? If we follow the lines of sight of Gabriel and the Virgin, who are looking toward each other, the significance of her action with the book is not any clearer, and as viewers our gaze is directed not at the book but through the windows to the contemporary world outside.

There is apparently a range of scenarios through which this archetypal female subject can respond to her text. Memling’s Annunciation makes the relationship between the Virgin’s body and her text much more explicit. In the liturgical tradition the Virgin is "praying," but as prayer becomes a literate act in the Early Modern Period, the iconography of prayer in Netherlandish painting becomes associated with the iconography of reading. The reading woman was a theme that interested Memling; a fragment of one of his earliest attributed paintings, Girl Reading, shows a young woman, perhaps a young Mary, placidly absorbed in her text. The penetration and appropriation of the Virgin body by the word of God brings special significance to these images of the reading woman. In the case of the Virgin, a miracle of transubstantiation is linked to the act of textual appropriation: physical conception and intellectual conception are one, and her interaction with scripture is critical to our interpretation of the scene. As the Word becomes flesh in the Memling Annunciation, we see the Virgin pointing to a page in the text, which is clearly individuated although the letters in the book are simulated (De Vos 304). Her gaze is directed not at the angel but at the book. This connection is made clearer by following the lines of sight of the other figures in the scene. In Memling's Annunciation we see that the gaze of one of the attending angels is focused on her womb, where the word of God is already becoming flesh and swelling below her drapery. Her incorporation of Logos involves both her body and her book.

In the Annunciation scene, there is another signifier of the logos of God that serves as a focal point for the viewer’s attention: the words of annunciation coming from the angel, which are often suspended in the space between Gabriel and Mary in their primordial moment of contact. Many depictions of the Annunciation illustrate church dogma in which the word of God enters through Mary's ear, perhaps because penetration through the auditory canal seems to offer a logical solution to the problem posed by the mechanics of conception for a vaginally intact Virgin (Neumann 317). Often the Virgin cocks her ear toward the arriving angel, so that, in these examples, auditory perception is emphasized over visual perception, and the female subject’s identity as a listener is more important than her identity as a reader in the scene.

Jan Van Eyck’s Annunciation from the Ghent altarpiece would initially seem to be of this type (Figure 14). Unlike the Washington Annunciation, this scene takes place in a sequestered space. Although the space is less clearly ecclesiastical, there is no bed and the piscina indicates a ritually sanctified environment. This room probably predates treatments of the scene in which Mary as the bride of Christ receives the herald in a thalamus. The Virgin’s arms are crossed, her ear is cocked to privilege her auditory senses over her visual ones, and her unfocused and possibly ecstatic gaze is turned away from her large open book. But the text closest to Mary’s ear is her own response, not the words from the angel. Her answer from the Missa Aurea, "Ecce ancilla Domini," is painted upside down, as if the intended reader of the text is not the viewer, but one looking down from on high. Van Eyck’s inversion calls attention to his interest in reader reception, and the choice itself makes it clear that this is not merely a transcription of speech but words to be read with visual decoding in mind.

Not all of the dramatic content of these Annunciation altarpieces is intended to render an intellectual appreciation for the value of literacy. As Harbison argues, fifteenth-century popular Flemish religion had a decided preference for visionary experience over scholastic knowledge. But it is important to note that Harbison also claims that these visions were inextricable from the reading experience of the lay population. To use Lacanian terms, a modern viewer may see the subject of these Annunciation scenes differently, as texts in which a female Subject must position herself in relation to the Signifier as Logos and to the jouissance of religious ecstasy. The way that our acts of reading are constituted by our contemporary position between the angel and the book, even in a post-book era, deserves a feminist response to Birkirt’s nostalgia for a detached and desocialized female reader.

Works Cited

Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in the Electronic Age. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994.

De Vos, Dirk. Hans Memling: The Complete Works. Trans. Ted Alkins. Ghent: Ludion Press, 1994.

De Vos, Dirk. Rogier van der Weyden: The Complete Works. Trans. Ted Alkins. Antwerp: Mercatorfonds, 1999.

Gifford, E. Melanie. "Van Eyck’s Washington Annunciation: Technical Evidence for Iconographic Development." Art Bulletin 81.1 (March 1999) 108-116.

Groeg Bell, Susan. "Medieval Women Book Owners: Arbiters of Lay Piety and Ambassadors of Culture." Signs 7 (1982), 742-68.

Grössinger, Christine. Picturing Women in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Haraway, Donna. "The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others." The Cultural Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Harbison, Craig. "Vision and meditations in early Flemish painting." Simiolus (1986) 87-118.

Huizinga, Johan. The Waning of the Middle Ages. New York: Doubleday, 1954.

Lacan, Jacques. Feminine Sexuality. Ed Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose. Trans. Jacqueline Rose. New York: Norton, 1985.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton, 1981.

Lane, Barbara. The Altar and the Altarpiece: Sacramental Themes in Early Netherlandish Painting. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.

Neumann, Erich. The Great Mother. Trans. Ralph Manheim. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1970.

Panofsky, Erwin. Early Netherlandish Painting: It’s Origins and Character. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Purtle, Carol J. "Van Eyck’s Washington Annunciation: Narrative Time and the Metaphoric Tradition." Art Bulletin 81.1 (March 1999) 117-125.

Purtle, Carol J. The Marian Paintings of Jan van Eyck. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Van Os, Henk. The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe 1300-1500. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.