Paintings of reading and books 1: Learning and devotion

Simone Cantarini (1612–1648), Reading Sibyl (c 1630-35), oil on canvas, 72 x 59 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

This weekend I’m starting early, in every sense, as I have a lot of paintings to show you. My theme for this and the next two articles is reading and the book.

Literary references are the basis of a great many paintings, particularly those which are narrative. For every religious image, there’s at least one and sometimes multiple references to major verbal sources for that faith. In general, even using techniques such as multiplex narrative, it’s rare for a single painting to depict more than a little of any story, for which the viewer usually has to refer to the literary original.

It’s therefore not suprising that reading and books are a popular theme in paintings, on occasion perhaps repaying a debt to the writer. Those paintings also contain a great deal of social history, giving insight into the changes which have occurred in our culture over the last millenium or so. Reading is a skill which has significantly lagged the development of writing; for several millenia, they were both the preserve of small minorities, and often guarded jealously.

Bonaventura Berlinghieri, Saint Francis of Assisi and scenes of his life (1235), tempera on wood, 160 × 123 cm, San Francesco, Pescia, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

In the late Middle Ages, reading and writing were typical of scholars who lived a monastic life. Bonaventura Berlinghieri’s panel painting of Saint Francis of Assisi and Scenes of His Life (1235), from the altar in Pescia, must be one of the most beautiful objects created before the Renaissance. Around the central figure of Saint Francis, carrying a large book, are six scenes. Reading from the top left they represent him kneeling in the wilderness, where he had his vision and received the stigmata (marks of crucifixion on the hands and feet, as shown in the central figure). Below that is the episode in his life which is perhaps remembered by most, when he preached to the birds, then at the bottom a miracle in which he healed a girl with a dislocated neck.

On the right are three of the miracles attributed to him: that at the top is the ‘miracle of the pear’ in which Saint Francis coaxed a crippled boy to stand by holding out a pear, as well as a leper who is waiting to be healed. Below that is the healing of a cripple in the waters of a bath, and at the bottom is the casting out of demons.

It’s relatively unusual to see the Virgin reading in paintings of her with the infant Jesus, but the next work, controversially attributed to Giorgione, is one of the few.

Giorgione (attr) (1477–1510), The Virgin and Child (‘The Tallard Madonna’) (c 1500-05), oil on panel, 76.7 × 60.2 cm, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Wikimedia Commons.

The first documented owner of what’s now known as The Tallard Madonna, from about 1500-05 was the Duc de Tallard, who claimed it as a Giorgione, but ever since that first public appearance in 1756, opinion has been divided. It shows the Virgin reading a book, with the infant Christ sat in front of her. The view through the window is even more fascinating, as it shows the Campanile and Palazzo Ducale by Piazza San Marco in Venice.

The flourishing literature of the Renaissance, coupled with the printing press, started a revolution in reading.

Giorgio Vasari (1511–1578), Six Tuscan Poets (1544), oil on panel, 132 x 131.1 cm, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN. Wikimedia Commons.

Appropriately, Giorgio Vasari is most famous for writing biographies of many of the important painters of the Renaissance and earlier, as well as being an accomplished artist. His tribute to some of the greatest writers of the period is Six Tuscan Poets from 1544. From left to right, I believe these to be Cino da Pistoia, Guittone d’Arezzo, Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), Giovanni Boccaccio, Dante Alighieri (seated) and Guido Cavalcanti. There are four books present, but the writers seem more interested in looking away.

At first, reading seems to have been largely a male prerogative. But the Renaissance also brought the first of a new and significant motif: the woman reading.

Simone Cantarini (1612–1648), Reading Sibyl (c 1630-35), oil on canvas, 72 x 59 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Simone Cantarini’s Reading Sibyl from about 1630-35 shows one of these classical oracles reading a proper printed book, quite a landmark for the time.

With the Renaissance came women who forged their own destinies more, ensuring that they and their daughters were better educated, and becoming patrons to writers, artists and musicians. In northern Europe, even villages started their own schools.

Jan Steen (1625/1626–1679), The Village School (c 1665), oil on canvas, 110.5 x 80.2 cm, National Gallery of Ireland Gailearaí Náisiúnta na hÉireann, Dublin, Ireland. Wikimedia Commons.

Jan Steen’s The Village School from about 1665 shows that learning to read didn’t come without its cost. The child at the right holds out a hand for teacher to strike it with a wooden spoon, presumably in return for the screwed-up piece of paper on the floor. Right behind the spoon is a sign of the times: a young child sat in front of an open book, and another behind him, with face almost covered by the brim of his hat, is reading a book.

More generally across Europe, reading remained the preserve of the middle and upper classes, and makes occasional appearances in paintings, sometimes in more unusual settings.

William Dyce (1806–1864), Francesca da Rimini (1837), oil on canvas, 218 x 182.9 cm, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons.

William Dyce’s choice of scene for his painting of the celebrated story of Paolo and Francesca is strange, in showing the adulterous couple engaged in apparently quite modest lovemaking, fully clad, under a crescent moon. On Francesca’s lap is an open book, which could represent her religious principles as a barrier to anything more carnal. However, an ominous hand belonging to someone else – presumably Francesca’s husband – is seen at the extreme left. There’s also evidence of a more complete figure of Giovanni having been at that left edge, now presumably painted over.

Perhaps this is a woman reading, interrupted.

As well as playing a role in depictions of Renaissance stories, books and reading are invoked in paintings of later literature, including Goethe’s Faust, where they play a more sinister role.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Faust in his Study (c 1840), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In Ary Scheffer’s Faust in his Study from about 1840, Goethe’s anti-hero is sat in front of a large book, presumably containing details of black arts.

For the Pre-Raphaelites, though, the primary association with reading and books remained religious devotion, just as in the art which they aspired to revive.

Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893), John Wycliffe Reading His Translation of the Bible to John of Gaunt (1847-48, 1859-61), oil on canvas, 119.5 x 153.5 cm, Bradford Art Galleries and Museums, Bradford, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Ford Madox Brown painted the first scholar to translate the Bible into (Middle) English, John Wycliffe Reading His Translation of the Bible to John of Gaunt (1847-48, 1859-61). Wycliffe’s translation was completed by the time of his death in 1384. John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, was a son of King Edward III and a major statesman who would have been 44 at the time of Wycliffe’s death. Brown probably modelled the figure of John after a portrait painted in about 1593 by Edward Hoby, two centuries after the Duke’s death.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848–9), oil on canvas, 83.2 x 65.4 cm, The Tate Gallery (Bequeathed by Lady Jekyll 1937), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848–9) contains some archaic devices, such as the gilt and lettered halos, and an oddly proportioned angel, but shows what Rossetti envisaged might have been the pictorial reality of the Virgin Mary during her youth. She works on embroidery with her mother, Saint Anne, by a pile of books guarded by the diminutive angel, while her father, Saint Joachim, prunes a vine.

Those details are shown quite realistically, as are the abundance of symbolic objects. The latter include palm fronds on the floor (the Passion), a thorny briar rose (Christ’s suffering and death), lilies (purity), the books are labelled faith, hope, charity, fortitude, etc., a dove (the Holy Spirit, the Annunciation), red cloth (the Passion), crosses in trellis (crucifixion), and more.

Tomorrow we’ll see more women reading, starting with a very strange painting indeed.