One of the things that intrigues me about medieval artwork is the way that it has its own stories to tell. In depicting biblical scenes (which provided the material for so much artwork in the Middle Ages), medieval artists sometimes incorporated visual stories that we don’t find in the Bible. Though without an actual scriptural basis, the symbolic text the medieval artists gave us can engage the imagination, raise questions, and illuminate a given story beyond what the written text provides. It works something like an artful midrash that invites us to imagine the worlds between the words.
Here’s my favorite example. In many medieval (and Renaissance) depictions of the Annunciation—that moment when the archangel Gabriel comes to Mary to ask her to become the mother of Jesus—Mary is depicted reading. (The chronic reader in me loves this.) Usually she’s depicted with a book that indicates that she’s at her prayers when Gabriel shows up. Sometimes, in a wonderful bit of anachronism, it’s a Book of Hours that Mary is reading. (The Book of Hours was a popular prayerbook in the Middle Ages. Often lavishly illustrated, Books of Hours always included a section of prayers in honor of Mary, with artwork that illustrates scenes from her life…including the Annunciation, in which the artists depict her reading…a Book of Hours…it’s kind of like one of those time-twisting Star Trek episodes I wrote about earlier.) Other times, her book is open to Isaiah, specifically to a passage from the Hebrew text that the lectionary gives us for this week, in which the prophet says this to King Ahaz:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7.14)
The Christian tradition came to interpret this passage as a foretelling of the birth of Jesus, God-with-us, to Mary. In depicting her reading this very text, the medieval artists did some intriguing time-twisting of their own, opening an imaginative portal between the sign given to King Ahaz and the miracle given to Mary.
(Okay, here’s a weird thing: though I should probably turn off my e-mail when I’m trying to write, and I often do, I just received an e-mail from a friend containing several ultrasound pictures, of a gestational sort; there’s a bit of online technology I’ve never experienced before. Intriguing that it should come through while I’m pondering Mary and the Annunciation.)
Though the image of Mary reading at the moment of the Annunciation doesn’t appear in the biblical text, I love this artful notion of the reading, praying Mary. It reveals something of the medieval view of Mary, and it offers evidence of a kind of visual lectio divina the artists did as they pondered Mary’s story. In depicting her with a prayerbook or with the sacred text of her tradition, the artists conveyed the compelling idea that Mary was already immersed in the word before the Word became immersed in her.
This image of Mary challenges me to ponder what texts—written or otherwise—I’m steeping myself in. What words, what images do I give my attention to: on the page, in conversation, in the course of my daily life? In a culture that inundates and sometimes assaults our eyes and ears with messages in all manner of forms, how do we read in a way that keeps us attuned to the sacred?
Am I, like the medieval Mary, immersing myself in the word in a way that helps me notice when a divine messenger shows up with an outrageous invitation? That’s what the word angel means in the original Greek: one who comes with a message. How do I cultivate an openness to that message, to the Word that longs to find a home in me, in us?