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  • Reading Mary as Reader:The Marian Art of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti
  • Kathryn Ready (bio)

As the works of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti attest, among the many signs of the Oxford or Tractarian Movement's influence in the realm of English culture was the resurgent interest in the Virgin Mary as a subject for poetry and painting. Inspired by this movement, sister and brother both recognized Mary as an important spiritual figure, intimately connected to the Biblical Logos. Yet their works simultaneously attest to the permanent decline in English culture of the Mary as Reader trope, a once popular artistic expression of the Virgin's central agency in the human understanding of the Logos. In different ways, brother and sister both invoke and subvert the Mary as Reader trope—he motivated by recurring doubts about the Virgin's understanding of and access to the Logos, and she by Protestant anxiety on the subject of Mariolatry. Christina arguably revives something of the spirit if not the letter of the Mary as Reader trope. Despite her qualms about Marian worship, she still regards Mary as a model Christian hermeneut who lived a perfect life in imitatio Christi. For her, Mary represents an inspiring example for all Christians, and especially women, who continued to be expected to defer to men in the matter of Biblical interpretation. Dante Gabriel similarly envisions Mary as a role model for contemporary women. However, his artistic representations of the Virgin not only serve to reinforce women's subordinate position in society, but also to strip them of what spiritual prerogative they possessed through the Victorian feminine ideal of the Angel in the House.

The origins of the Mary as Reader trope lie in the writings of Origen, St. Ambrose, and St. Thomas Aquinas. According to Marina Warner, "by mining the multi-layered meanings of the word logos, [Origen] suggested that Mary had conceived Jesus the Word at the words of the angel."1 In his De Officiis 1.18.68-69, Ambrose similarly asserts that the Word was made flesh not through human seed but through the mystical breath of the spirit. In Summa Contra Gentiles 4.34, Aquinas sets out a rigorous series of deductive arguments to demonstrate that through the Incarnation the Virgin was the Mother of the Word of God. Based on the assumption that Mary bore in her [End Page 151] womb not only Christ's humanity, but also God's Word, these writers grant her a special position within Biblical tradition, as the only individual who may be literally said to have read the Logos, and by implication, who may assist others in gaining insight into it. As Aquinas states, "But one never reads the 'Word of the Lord was made' Moses, or Jeremias, or one of the others. Yet thus uniquely was the union of God's Word to the flesh of Christ marked by the Evangelist."2 Moreover, Aquinas assumed that Mary received special instruction from Gabriel before the Incarnation concerning the mystery of the Word and the significance of the task to which she had been appointed. The recognition of Mary's special position earned her the title of Virgo Sapientissima or Virgin Most Wise. Mary was most widely celebrated as Virgo Sapientissima during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, both in painting and poetry. Paintings of the Virgin's education and the Annunciation often portrayed her reading a scroll or a book. Implicated in such representations were assumptions concerning Mary's foreknowledge of the coming of Christ and the details of his life. It was assumed that prior to the Annunciation Mary had received hints of her destiny from her lifelong study of scripture and grasp of its typological meaning. Marian poetry and painting encouraged the imitation of Mary as Reader through the rich use of typology and symbology, as well as details of Mary's life, all of which effectively transformed her into a book through which the Logos might be understood. Historically connected to Mary's status as Reader was her function as Mediatrix. It was as interpreter of the Logos that Mary came to be regarded as an essential bridge between humanity and divinity, all...


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pp. 151-174
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