Despite years of investigation and experiment the process of learning to read remains a complex, almost mysterious, process. In this fifteenth century drawing by Vittore Carpaccio the Virgin Mary is depicted reading to the infant Jesus Christ. It is a scene that is at once intimate and universal, a moment of loving contact between a mother and her child and the symbol of the relay of knowledge from one generation to the next. Intriguingly the book is held towards us but its lines (literally) are unreadable, except as a graphic sign that represents, in Western culture at least, writing in general.
In John Thopas's Half-length portrait of a Youth (1660) the student has grown up and learnt to read alone and silently. Eyes cast down, hands reverently holding the book: it is no coincidence, surely, that the pose so closely resembles the act of prayer. This can be seen as the consummate image of the good student: mouth pursed, dress tidy, the student is oblivious to all the potentially frivolous distractions of the world.