Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to read

  • Title: Donor portraits of Margaret Blackburn and her husband Nicholas
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    Nicholas Blackburn senior and his wife, Margaret Blackburn, kneel in prayer in this section from a stained glass window in All Saints Church, North Street, York. Margaret holds an open book with the words originally reading " Oh Lord, save me from sins|and open my mouth” visible on the two pages. The phrases come from Psalm 50, and are part of the readings for Matins in books of hours which begin with the second part of this versicle. Nicholas, a leading merchant in York, was connected by marriage and social ties to a network of prominent gentry (see the couple’s wills for evidence of family wealth as well as religious devotion). In addition to serving as mayor of York, Nicholas also was the admiral of the Northern Fleet in 1406-1407. The armor and heraldic surcoat he wears may refer to his tenure as admiral.

    In a larger section from the same window, Saint Anne puts a protective arm around her young daughter Mary as the child picks out the letters in a book with a pointer. The text is from Psalm 143 (“Hear my prayer, O Lord, and consider my desire.”) Anne’s luxurious robe is trimmed with gold and ermine while Mary wears an elaborate headdress and gold brocade. The richness here is in keeping with the donors’ clothing marked by deep colors and gold bands. The cult of Saint Anne as a model bourgeois mother came to prominence in England in the late Middle Ages; the Blackburns demonstrate their devotion here as well as in the endowment of a chantry for the chapel of Saint Anne on Fossbridge. The image of the saint teaching the Virgin to read appears during this period in manuscripts, paintings, and sculpture as well as stained glass. Scholars have recently cited these works as evidence of the important role mothers played as their children’s first teacher of the alphabet, reading and prayer.

    As a successful merchant family in York, the Blackburns endowed their parish church, All Saints, richly with two sets of stained glass windows as well as money to support services and to help the poor. Nicholas in his will stipulated that the large gift of 100£ be distributed at the church to the poor. The Blackburn memorial window is made up of three parts. In the large lights Saint John the Baptist, Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to read, and Saint Christopher carrying the Christ child appear. In the panels beneath, two generations of donor couples are represented flanking the Holy Trinity, on the viewer’s left Nicholas Blackburn junior and his wife who is also named Margaret and on the right the parents, Nicholas and Margaret. The other window endowed by the Blackburn family presents six of the corporal acts of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, providing refuge for strangers, clothing the poor, helping the sick, and visiting prisoners. The seventh act, burying the dead, is not represented.

    The window sections representing Saint Anne and the Virgin and the female donors put a particular emphasis on women and their books. They are tied more closely together by the visible inscriptions on the books’ opened pages. All three are lines from the penitential psalms, a series of seven taken from the Bible and intended for regular recitation by devout lay people. The younger Margaret holds the first Penitential Psalm (O Lord, rebuke me not in thine indignation; neither [chasten me] in thy displeasure.) Margaret Blackburn senior holds a part of the fourth Penitential Psalm, while the Virgin Mary reads the opening line of the seventh and final Penitential Psalm. These verses also serve as signifiers for books of hours which contained the Penitential Psalms and other prayers for private devotion both by women and men. Margaret Blackburn senior is the likely first owner of a lavishly illustrated book of hours made around 1415 and known as the Bolton Hours (now in the York Minster Library). The book evidently passed from Margaret to her daughter, Alice Bolton. Among its multiple illustrations concerning women there is an image which Patricia Cullum and Jeremy Goldberg have identified as Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to read with Anne’s two other daughters from previous marriages in the background. This unusual iconography was likely intended as a model of female sanctity for Blackburn and her three daughters. Furthermore Nicola McDonald argues that the connections between women and books in this socially ambitious merchant family carried a meaning which conveyed higher status and success. This ambition was realized when Alice Bolton’s daughter twice married into gentry families.

  • Source: Image #1(donor portraits): Flickr
    Image #2 (Anne and Mary): tumblr post
  • Rights: Image #1: Reproduced with the permission of the photographer, Gordon Plumb.
    Image #2: Reproduced from the tumblr Medium Aevum where Google labels the image for noncommercial reuse.
  • Subject (See Also): Anne, Mother of the Virgin, Saint Books of Hours Husbands Literacy Mary, Virgin, Saint Merchants Patronage, Artistic Patronage, Ecclesiastical Readers Wives
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1420s
  • Related Work:

    See other lights in the Blackburn window:
    Three main lights, St John the Baptist, St Anne teaching the Virgin, and St Christopher holding the Christ child: https://www.flickr.com/photos/vitrearum/308562375/;
    Lower panel representing the younger Nicholas Blackburn and his wife Margaret: https://ehkern.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/all-saints-north-street-focc88nster-3.jpg;
    All the lights together in one view: https://www.flickr.com/photos/22274117@N08/4115366780/in/photolist-aazJTw-dguqLA-7gEkaE-4qHCYF-jw9xJq-oAuDEF-gPRRp4-aaz6k5-aavDNz-jw8MVx-aau68a-aawUT9-5FHLDC-aaymdL-4LBns8-aazb8C-4rjA5W-aax19T-5PVase-aayjqq-aaznUf-afpoeH-hqrHLj-aazc13-7gfY13-7gEjps-7gErRm-coU2Sj-aayvtu-a5vQzV-5PVBhp-57b6dD-57fgjf-aazWbC-aawYB4-8URLnT-57fgaA-aawFGq-7gArcx-aawSvm-57b66v-ohRqUz-aawRdW-8V27fx-57b5kF-2W8SrN-goryZQ-bUtxCm-bTZGUp-bTZF7v

    See other windows in All Saints Church, North Street, York with descriptions and panoramic views on the church's website:

  • Current Location: York, All Saints Church, North Street, east window
  • Original Location: York, All Saints Church, North Street, north aisle
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Stained glass windows
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Pot-metal glass; Vitreous paint
  • Donor: Layman and laywoman; Nicholas and Margaret Blackburn, husband and wife in a wealthy merchant family involved in civic government and support of the Church. See Margaret's will and extracts from that of her husband's with a commentary by Stephen Alsford.
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): //
  • Inscription: Recorded in 1691 from Margaret Blackburn senior’s book: “D(omin)es salue mea peccatis| aperies et os meum" (Oh Lord, save me from sins|and open my mouth). At some point the wording was changed to the more familiar “D(omin)e labia mea aperies et os meu(m)” (You, oh Lord, will open my lips and my mouth).
    Recorded in 1691 from the younger Margaret Blackburn’s book: “d(omin)e in furore tuo judicas me| neqz in ira tua” (O Lord, rebuke me not in thine indignation; neither [chasten me] in thy displeasure).

    From the Virgin Mary’s book: “D(omi)ne exaudi or(ati)onem mea(m) aurib(us) p(er)cipe ob(secrationem meam) (Lord, hear my prayer, with your ears receive my petition).

    Inscription at the bottom of the donors’ panel for Nicholas senior and Margaret: "Orate pro a(n)i(m)abus Nich(ola)i Blakeburne senioris quo(n)dam maioris civitatis Ebor. et Margare[te] uxoris eius.” (Pray for the souls of Nicholas Blackburn senior, once mayor of the city of York, and Margaret, his wife.)
    Inscription on a scroll above Nicholas Blackburn’s head: “De(t) venie munus nobis rex trinus et unus” (May the king, three and one, grant us the gift of pardon).

  • Related Resources: Clanchy , Michael. “Did Mothers Teach their Children to Read?” Motherhood, Religion, and Society in Medieval Europe, 400-1400: Essays Presented to Henrietta Leyser. Edited by Conrad Leyser and Lesley Smith. Ashgate, 2011. Pages 129 – 153;
    Cullum, Patricia and Jeremy Goldberg. “How Margaret Blackburn Taught Her Daughters: Reading Devotional Instruction in a Book of Hours.” Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts in Late Medieval Britain. Essays for Felicity Riddy. Edited by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Rosalynn Voaden, Arlyn Diamond, Ann Hutchison, Carol M. Meale, and Lesley Johnson. Brepols, 2000. Pages 217-236;
    Gee, E. A. “The Painted Glass of All Saints’ Church, North Street, York.” Archaeologia or Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity 102 (1969): 151-202;
    Mcdonald, Nicola. “A York Primer and its Alphabet: Reading Women in a Lay Household.” Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature in English. Edited by Elaine Treharne and Greg Walker, with the assistance of William Green. Oxford University Press, 2010. Pages 181-199;
    Rudy, Kathryn M. "The Bolton/Blackburn Hours (York Minster Add. Ms. 2): A New Solution to its Text-Image Disjunctions using a Structural Model." Tributes to Paul Binski: Medieval Gothic: Art, Architecture and Ideas. Edited by Julian Luxford. Harvey Miller Publishers, 2021. Pages 272-285.