A Review of Rachel Fulton Brown’s Mary & the Art of Prayer

This blog post will review Prof. Dr. Rachel Fulton Brown’s book about medieval devotion to Mary by giving an overview of the chapters, pointing out the main issues and assessing the book’s contents.

Fra Angelico’s Annunciation (c. 1440-50)

At the beginning of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke Mary takes a prominent position. Most importantly, she became the mother of Jesus Christ, who is both true God and true man in the Christian tradition. Hence, Mary has the title Mother of God. She is also called the Virgin Mary since, with reference to Christian tradition, she remained a virgin before, during and after his birth.

The Virgin Mary, Baby Jesus and angels


Although Mary only appears and / or is mentioned a few times in the Gospels after the infancy narratives, she was – at least, according to the Gospel of John – present at significant events in Christ’s adult life. For example, at the Marriage at Cana Jesus performed his first miracle by turning water into wine at Mary’s suggestion that there was no wine left and her request to the servants to obey his instructions (cf. John 2:1-11). Another noteworthy appearance was at Christ’s Crucifixion, where Jesus entrusted John to his mother’s care and vice versa (cf. John 19:25-27).

We also learn from the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles that in the aftermath of the Ascension of Jesus Mary was in the upper room in Jerusalem together with the other disciples (cf. Acts 1:14). Then, the rest of the New Testament seemingly falls silent on her. But in the Book of Revelation we come across some notable passages.

The beginning of these passages, which are charged with multi-layered symbolism, is particularly striking:

“And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:

 And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.” (Book of Revelation 12, 1-2 〈King James Version〉)

Christian tradition has identified the woman with both Mary, the Mother of God, and with the church (or the people of the old and new covenant). Here the crown of twelve stars stands for the twelve tribes of Israel. While the sun as the source of light, warmth, energy and life probably stresses the role of this woman as a force of goodness, the moon prompts some questions.

As in other cultures the Jewish religion (has) had a Lunisolar calendar. Arguably, such a calendar was also in use among Jews who accepted the Messiah (i.e. the early Christians) including the writers of the several parts of the New Testament. Regarding the Lunisolar calendar, it relies, as the name indicates, on lunar and solar cycles. More precisely, the months are lunar, whereas the years are solar.

Because the moon and the sun were means of timekeeping, the quoted passages might be interpreted as follows: represented by the  woman who is clothed with the sun and has the moon under her feet, Mary (or the church) appears to be the mistress of time (, with God, of course, constituting the absolute ruler or master of time). Interestingly enough, during the Latin Middle Ages the Mother of God and the Catholic Church, in the figurative sense, really ruled time for a large number of people in their prayer life.

This can be seen in Prof. Dr. Rachel Fulton Brown’s impressive book with the full title Mary & the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought. It was published by Columbia University Press in 2017. Basically, this book deals with the medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary through a complex of prayers, psalms, chants, lessons and litanies that – in those days – were included in the extremely popular Book of Hours.

In turn, every Book of Hours contained a version of The Little Office of the Virgin Mary. The latter provided European Christians – whether they were nuns, monks, clerics or laypersons – with a daily liturgical cursus of devotional sources like hymns, psalms,  biblical passages, lessons and, of course, prayers to honour the Blessed Virgin. As it turned out, Mary played a significant role in the routines of prayer as well as in Christian thought.

Needless to mention, through The Little Office of the Virgin Mary devotion to the Mother of God became a large part of the medieval Christian’s daily lives. So to speak, Mary, to a certain extent, was really the mistress of time during the Middle Ages as Revelation 12,1 implies.

A Profound Insight into Medieval Devotion to Mary – Getting Familiar with the Art of Prayer

As far as Rachel Fulton Brown’s Mary & the Art of Prayer is concerned, Mary received several (other) titles such as the Lady of the temple. Generally speaking, the book centers on The Little Office of the Virgin Mary and some important medieval scholarly works in this regard – namely the writings in praise of Mary by Richard of Saint-Laurent, Conrad of Saxony, Pseudo-Albert and, at the end, the early modern devotional text by Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda.

By paraphrasing and scrutinizing these works, Fulton Brown not only gives us modern readers a profound insight into medieval devotion to Mary but also elaborates on how Christians imagined, praised and thought of the Virgin. Moreover, Fulton Brown clearly explains this imagery, which is often alien to the majority of people (even Christians) nowadays. Putting it differently, she successfully translates the way Christians in the Middle Ages conceived of Mary into modern English.

Likewise, the book succeeds in showing us how medieval Christians prayed. Intriguingly, it encompasses several sections where the readers are invited to participate in the experience of praying to the Blessed Virgin to make themselves familiar with the art of prayer. Through this approach the reader gets access to those medieval devotional practices and the Marian liturgy (i.e. religious service). Apart from this, the book’s accessibility is further enhanced by its structure.

From the Office of the Virgin to the Mystical City of God – An Overview of Rachel Fulton Brown’s Book

In the beginning parts of Mary & the Art of Prayer, Rachel Fulton Brown presents an Invitatory. This part serves as a kind of introduction to the way this book should be read and sets out an overview of the book’s chapters. With respect to the first chapter, we are informed about the popularity, the contents, the origins and history of the Book of Hours and, especially, the Marian Office or the Office of the Virgin.

Subsequently, the second chapter focuses on the medieval understanding of the recitation of the Ave Maria. For medieval Christians the well-known salutation of the Virgin was crucial and amounted to a service. What is worth pointing out, in this connection, is the medieval meditation on the numerous meanings of Mary’s name:

“…(O)ne of the things that they (i.e. medieval monks, nuns, canons and friars) enjoyed most was meditation on Mary’s name, including all of the titles and typologies discovered of her in creation and in the scriptures. Mary, as they saw her, was God’s handmaid, to be sure (Luke 1:38), but she was also Ark of the Covenant, Seat of Wisdom, Tower of Ivory, Litter of Solomon, Cedar of Lebanon, Garden of Delights, and Star of the Sea, not to mention Virgin of Virgins, Mother of Mercy, Queen of Heaven, and Bride of God…The most perfect of all God’s creatures, Mary herself was the most perfect mirror of God…” (Fulton Brown. Mary & the Art of Prayer. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. P. 54)

Suffice it to say, people in the Middle Ages associated various images, depictions and titles with the Mother of God, as the following chapters continue to demonstrate.

Mary and Baby Jesus (and apostles)

Chapter 3, then, places the emphasis on the complex interplay between antiphons and psalms of the Marian Office. Antiphons can be defined as framing chants. At one point, Fulton Brown offers a key to interpreting the interweaving of psalms and antiphons, when she suggests to imaginatively compare the corresponding antiphon, which frames the  psalm, to Mary, while the psalm can be likened with Christ.

Metaphorically speaking, Mary is like the hard shell that protects the sweet nut or the veil that conceals the Holy of Holies. Eventually, the recitation of the psalms together with the antiphons enables us, in metaphorical terms, to crack open this shell or to lift this veil to grasp the spiritual meaning. Consequently, Mary both bears Christ and guides the way to Him.

After arriving at the heart of the Marian Office in the third chapter, Fulton Brown, in the next chapter, devotes herself to an extensive analysis of three remarkable thirteenth-century works in praise of the Virgin by Richard of Saint-Laurent, Conrad of Saxony and Pseudo-Albert. Their insightful writings help deepen our comprehension of the medieval view of Mary and the Marian Office by commenting on the images of her and referring to biblical passages, particularly archangel Gabriel’s greeting.

Later, chapter 5 recounts some medieval miracle stories as a result of prayers to Mary, who was seen as a purveyor of mercy, mediator as well as intercessor. Furthermore,  Fulton Brown brings the findings of the preceding chapters together. In this way, we can conclude that devotion to the Virgin pervaded numerous aspects of Christian life during the Middle Ages, was immensely popular among a wide range of people, formed an integral part of Christian spirituality and inspired intellectual treatises.

Towards the end of the chapter, Fulton Brown describes the medieval believers‘ attitude to the Virgin and the Marian Office concisely:

“Trained by Wisdom in the understanding of the scriptures, medieval Christians lifted their minds and souls to God through the psalms and other texts of the Office of the Virgin Mary that they sang in their Lady’s praise, longing for the Lord with their intellect and affect even as they visualized him as a baby in his mother’s arms. Mary, they believed, was the one who had given birth to God in the flesh so that he might become visible to the world. She was the one who, as his ark, temple, and throne, showed to the world the Creator whom it had not seen, and she was the garden into whom he entered so as to give new life to his creatures. To serve her was to serve God.” (Fulton Brown. Mary & the Art of Prayer. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. Pp. 453-4)

Indications for the popularity of devotion to Mary were the aforementioned imagery or descriptions of praise her servants employed. We find them in the preceding chapters, in the quotation above and in the last paragraphs of this chapter: the Lady of the templethe Word of Wisdom, the Queen of heaven and the Tree of Life in heaven.

Finally, Fulton Brown’s book closes with an epilogue on a fascinating 17th-century book – Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda’s The Mystical City of God. Her theological reflections on Mary and Marian devotion resemble the medieval understanding of these issues, as can be inferred from the accounts by scholars such as Richard of Saint-Laurent. However, her seemingly mystic account was ridiculed by the famous Enlightenment figures Voltaire and Casanova.

Ultimately, Sor María’s popular work fell into oblivion. Correspondingly, the influence of these devotional practices decreased. Therefore, modern people have distanced themselves from the practices of ancient, medieval and early modern Christians.

Since we now have an overview of the chapters, it is time to come to a general assessment. In this context, we will emphasize the book’s accessibility and, of course, its substance.

A Must-Read for Readers Interested in Medieval Studies and Christianity – A General Assessment

Rachel Fulton Brown’s Mary & the Art of Prayer has, as noted before, a very accessible style, even though it is, primarily, a scholarly work. She sums up medieval notions and medieval works in a comprehensible way for modern readers. Diagrams, images and tables help us better understand the contents.

Besides this, the book frequently addresses the reader personally (as you). It should be added that this personal address to the readers – especially the opening sections of each chapter – and Fulton Brown’s unique approach in general allow us to immerse ourselves in what believers in the Middle Ages experienced, when they prayed.

The book, on the one hand, critically discusses claims, opinions and statements that have been voiced or written by 16th-century Protestant reformers and scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries like Hilda Graef. On the other hand, Fulton Brown builds on other scholarly contributions, using them in her convincing argumentation and interpretation. She also meticulously analyses the cited medieval texts. Accordingly, Mary & the Art of Prayer perfectly fulfills the standards of scholarship. (Note: Look at the impressive Bibliography!)

All in all, Fulton Brown’s book is very well-researched. Certainly, the reader will gain a lot of knowledge and insights into medieval devotional practices. Perhaps the term the art of prayer could have been defined more precisely, notwithstanding that we are able to derive what it means from several parts.

On the whole, the book is a must-read for readers who are interested in the Virgin Mary, medieval studies and (Western) Christianity. Fulton Brown makes us painfully aware of a devotional tradition we have lost in the West since the Enlightenment.

Fulton Brown, Rachel. Mary & the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. Pp. xlii, 629. You can order it, for instance, via amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, amazon.deBarnes & Noble or Columbia University Press

A Note on the Author

Dr. Rachel Fulton Brown works as an Associate Professor of History at the University of Chicago. Professor Fulton Brown has specialized in medieval European history, the interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, the history of Christianity and devotion to Mary. Her professional website can be found here. Additionally, she runs the blog Fencing Bear at Prayer. You can also follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I strongly recommend her work. 

Other Sources Used for this Review (Alongside Fulton Brown’s Book and the Bible)

Holden, Fr Marcus, and Fr Andrew Pinsent. The Catholic Faith Explained. London: The Incorporated Catholic Truth Society, 2007. 

McFarlan, D.M. Dictionary of the Bible. New Lanark: Geddes & Grosset, 2005. 

Oakes, Catherine. Ora Pro Nobis: The Virgin as Intercessor in Medieval Art and Devotion. Turnhout: Harvey Miller Publishers / Brepols Publishers, 2008. 

Wansbrough, Henry. Der Bibel-Guide. Trans. Nikolaus de Palézieux. Darmstadt: Konrad Theiss Verlag, 2014. 

Note: As for the above mentioned reading of Revelation 12, 1-2, years ago I listened to a Catholic priest who regarded it as a possible interpretation.   

Medieval Italy – The Birthplace of Glasses with an Unknown Creator (Part I)

Eyeglasses have been ranked among the most important inventions in human history. We don’t know exactly who invented spectacles. But, according to surviving historical sources, they first emerged in Italy during the Middle Ages. 

Glasses provide an enormous help for visually impaired people. They serve to correct defective eyesight – whether it is nearsightedness (i.e. myopia), farsightedness (i.e. hyperopia) or other vision disorders such as the aging eye condition (i.e. presbyopia).

Prototypically, these devices consist of a pair of glass or hard plastic lenses that are set in a frame. Through a bridge in addition to a nose pad as well as two arms the lenses are held in front of the eyes and the glasses rest on the nose and ears.

As far as the lenses are concerned, we usually distinguish between convex and concave lenses. The former bulge at the centre but are thinner around the edges, whereas the latter are, conversely, thinner in the middle and thicker at the edges. Furthermore, when light rays pass through these different types of lenses, in the convex lens the rays are converged at a focal point. By contrast, the concave lens diverges the beams.

Convex lenses help to treat farsightedness, while concave lenses are used in the treatment of nearsightedness. Alongside, for example, bifocal or multifocal lenses, which have two or more lens powers, convex lenses also (used to) correct presbyopia that occurs with aging eyes. In any case, Glasses enable people with visual impairment and the elderly whose eyesight deteriorates to (continue to) read and see properly.

Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising why academics have regarded eyeglasses as one of the most notable inventions in the history of mankind. For example, in a poll of more than 80 scholars, which was taken at the end of the 20th century, reading glasses were ranked among the most important inventions of the previous two millennia since they have significantly prolonged the active life of scholars and everybody who reads or is involved in fine and intellectual work.

Judging from surviving historical sources, glasses or spectacles first appeared in medieval Italy, even though the identity of the original inventor isn’t known. During the Middle Ages Catholic churchmen arguably encouraged the replication of eyeglasses and praised the art of spectacle making. This brings us to a sermon that was delivered in the first decade of the 14th century.

A Medieval Friar’s Praise of the art of making eyeglasses – Cues about Their Origin

On 23 February 1306 the Dominican friar Giordano da Pisa – one of the most popular preachers at this time – gave a sermon at the church Santa Maria Novella in Florence. At one point, he referred to the art of making spectacles:

It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses, which make for good vision, one of the best arts and most necessary that the world has. And it is so short a time that this new art, never before extant, was discovered. And the lecturer said: I saw the one who first discovered and practiced it, and I talked to him. (English translation taken from Vincent Illardi’s book Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes (2007), p. 5).

His sermon contains some noteworthy cues about the origin of the art of spectacle construction, the importance of this art and the unknown inventor.

This photo was taken by me (Nils Zumbansen) in the church Santa Maria Novella in Florence (2018). My glasses are a bit anachronistic.

What strikes us immediately is the very beginning of the quotation as it indicates when the art of constructing eyeglasses was initially developed – approximately around 1285/6 or in the late 1280s. Roughly speaking, we can infer from archeological findings and historical as well as scholarly sources that spectacles, in fact, seem to have been invented or come into use in the period between the final decades of the 13th century and the early 14th century.

Interestingly enough, by the time Giordano delivered his sermon the production of spectacles was, for instance, well-established in two Italian city-states, Pisa and Venice. Especially the latter, the Republic of Venice, deserves a little closer look. Here the earliest reference to eyeglasses can be found in guild regulations which date from 1300. Consequently, medieval Italy justifiably qualifies as the birthplace of spectacles.

Apart from vaguely pointing to the time of their first appearance, the medieval friar Giordano da Pisa mentioned the positive effect of eyeglasses because of their ability to facilitate good vision. Moreover, he praised the art of spectacle making as one of the very best in the world. But in his sermon we don’t learn about the identity of the original inventor.

Who Was the Original Inventor of Eyeglasses? – An Unsolved and Probably Unsolvable Mystery

Before we turn to the issue of the unknown inventor, it is advisable to take into account  the fact that Giordano’s sermons were collected and recorded by loyal followers. Considering this, the Italian historian Chiara Frugoni asks the question whether the writer – by  adding the remark the lecturer said – meant Giordano, a teacher or theologian in Florence, or another scholar who was present during Giordano’s sermon and announced himself as a witness in this regard.

Whatever the case, instead of naming the inventor, Giordano or the other scholar just claimed to know him and to have talked to him. However, why didn’t the sermon reveal  his identity? We can only speculate.

All in all, the search for his name and identity has been an unsolved mystery and almost probably remains one. Some patriotically minded individuals, in particular during the 17th century, tried to identify the original inventor as an inhabitant of their local city. Despite their attempts, these theories prove to be unreliable and were already refuted.


Frugoni, Chiara. Medioevo sul naso. Occhiali, bottoni e altre invenzioni medievali. Rome, Bari: Editori Laterza, 2001.

Ilardi, Vincent. Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2007.

To be continued…The second part will present information about another important person in the history of spectacle making – Friar Alessandro della Spina. Additionally, it’ll be shown how medieval glasses looked like.       




Did Medieval Scholars Really Debate about How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?

Angels were, in fact, the subject of long and thoughtful discussions among scholars and / or theologians during the Middle Ages. Medieval scholars or Scholastics generally regarded angels as living spirits that were / are not enclosed in flesh.

Such debates, amongst other issues, revolved around the precise nature of the angelic body. For example, medieval theologians and / or scholars discussed the nature of this body in connection to physical space. Here we may point to a question by the famous philosopher-theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274). In his Summa Theologiae he asked of “whether several angels can be in the same place?”

But medieval Scholastics and / or theologians almost certainly never debated about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This claim apparently emerged among anti-Scholastic thinkers during the early modern period because they tried to caricature and ridicule Scholastic thought.

The first to claim that medieval scholars had really discussed this was arguably the 17th-century English philosopher Henry More (1614-1687), who was part of the Cambridge Platonist school. More aimed to demonstrate the absurdities of high Scholasticism by referring to the “ridiculous fancies of the Schools.” Furthermore, he mentions Scholastic discussions regarding angels as well as the question “how many of them booted and spurred may dance on a needle’s point at once (?).”

Eventually, this claim was spread by a later edition of the popular work Curiosities of Literature. It was compiled by Isaac Disraeli (1766-1848), the father of the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.


Bartlett, Robert. The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages. Cambridge (et al.): CUP, 2008.