Depiction of the Virgin Mary reading


In many paintings, the Virgin Mary is often depicted reading a book of scripture. What is the symbolism here?


Well, I think it is much more than symbolic for starters. From what I know of her life, she was extremely grounded in Sacred Scripture- meaning, the readings of much of what we call the Old Testament.

In a very real way, the Word of God found in the Holy Books of the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets took form in her intellect, heart, and soul long before the Word of God, Emmanuel, took flesh in her Sacred Womb.

I think I read that Our Lady had retired to her room to prayerful reading the scriptures late in the afternoon when the angel Gabriel appeared to her.

(Someone please correct me if I remember it wrong, but this is how I recall my reading of the mystics on the life of Our Lady.)

God Bless.


That’s right. The depiction is that of Our Lady reading or carrying a book - to represent the idea that Mary was literate (mastered the seven liberal arts). In some paintings, the book she is reading is specifically a Psalter or a copy of the Scriptures - with the page open to Isaiah 7:14. In earlier iconography it was more common to show Mary with a spindle and some wool, because a popular belief (deriving from the 2nd-century Protoevangelium of James) has it that she was occupied in spinning purple yarn for the temple curtain when the angel appeared to her.

The depiction of Mary reading a book actually goes hand-in-hand with those medieval depictions of St. Anne teaching the child Mary to read. It’s not coincidental that showing a literate Mary arose during the late Middle Ages, when there was a shift in emphasis from praying from memory to using a book from which to read, pray, and meditate. Our Lady was seen as an important role model, so she had to be seen as literate at a time when lay literacy (especially women’s literacy) was growing. The idea of Mary reading is already found in earlier literary works (I think St. Ambrose is the first to explicitly think that Mary was given to reading), but visually depicting her as reading only became popular during the 14th-15th centuries.


Yes, I agree with previous posts that Mary was well read in the Scriptures. I also believe there is symbolism that she is contemplating the Word of God (represented by the Scriptures) as His Mother.


Sometimes Mary has the infant Jesus on her lap with an open book close by. I am thinking of one painting in particular, “Madonna with the book” (or something to that effect). I believe this painting is part of an exhibit currently on display in Washington, DC. One commentary suggests an interplay between the book and the infant Jesus - on one hand, you have the written word - and, on the other, the Word made Flesh - with the implication that God has “intensified” His closeness to us beyond “all telling”.


According to Henri Daiel-Rops **Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, **Jews were a singular people in that their only known books were the 22 books of Scripture.


The Septuagint contained more books than 22, as far as what was considered “scripture” in the time of Jesus and Paul.

22 was the number settled on at the Jewish council of Jamnia. As I’ve heard it, the Jews of that day eliminated books that Christians used for making their claims for Christianity, and they are said to have even changed the text of some books (like changing Isaiah 7:14 to read “young woman” instead of “virgin”).

The art of the middle ages strongly used contemporary settings for the depictions of the Holy Family, notably Mary looks very Italian rather than looking like a Palestinian woman, especially in the selection of clothing – just as Our Lady of Guadalupe looks very much like local women looked and dressed in Central America.

In Peru, the Last Supper is depicted with Jesus and the apostles eating guinea pig, which is the local protein source. My gift souvenir from my niece was a refrigerator magnet with that depiction. I got what I asked for, by the way, a piece of rubble from Machu Pechu.


Note that the Septuagint was written in Greek for the Greek speaking diaspora. The 22 books settled on by the Jews by eliminating all foreign language books and retaining only those written in Hebrew. I doubt that Mary read Greek.


The book represents the Torah, what we know as the first five books of the Bible which contained God’s law.

This statue (Madonna de la Harpies) sits in my home. The image of the Book of the Torah is one reason why I acquired this particular piece.



This is very interesting, especially Isaiah 7:24. I did not read this before I posted. Thank you Patrick.



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