Bible study · spinning · textiles as fine arts · textiles in literature · weaving

Art & Craft: The Wise Virgins (Crispijn de Passe the Elder)

Who made it: Crispijn de Passe the Elder (1564 – 1637)), a Flemish publisher, printmaker, and draughtsman; following the work of Maarten de Vos (1532 – 1603), a Flemish painter and draughtsman.

Why I love it: During Advent, which began this week, the faithful are called to meditate on images of faithful expectation. The gospel reading from this Sunday offered a picture of servants who wait for their master’s return, prepared at any moment to be found doing his work:

But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake. (Mark 13:32-37)

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus offers a similar parable of faithful expectation. Here, He contrasts two groups of virgins waiting for a wedding feast. According to the customs of the time, they sit in expectation of the Bridegroom. The groom could arrive at any time, and as it happens, he does not arrive until late in the night. By the time he comes, five of the young women have run out of oil for their lamps, while five brought oil to last through the night. The five who are able to trim their lamps and follow the Bridegroom immediately enter the wedding feast, while the five foolish girls must go seek oil, and arrive too late to enter the celebration.

This is a complex parable with a rich history of interpretation. As an image for Advent reflection, I appreciate this engraving for the way in which it depicts the wise virgins. All five are engaged in either some act of study or work–significantly, textile work. One spins, one weaves, and another embroiders. These images of textile work appear in many other engravings of this parable from the period, (compare, for example, this earlier work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder). Prior to industrialization, work with textiles was the major occupation of most women. I also wonder if the association of faithful expectation draws on much older iconography of Mary spinning and reading. (This is a topic I’ve been researching a great deal lately–more to come on the blog soon!)

Meanwhile, one reads from an open book–and I can’t help but imagine that she is reading aloud to their industrious sisters. Finally, the virgin in the foreground writes in a blank book while holding her lighted lamp aloft, offering a key to the whole scene: their faithful works and studies are one and the same with their well-trimmed lamps. They remind us that while we wait for the return of Christ, for the recreation of heaven and earth, we have good work to do. This work is not merely a strategy to keep busy or out of trouble. Rather, the work of our heads, hearts, and hands can become lamps we hold aloft for Christ, lighting our way to the feast He will call–at any moment–for us to join.

(Though not related to textiles, Christina Rossetti’s Advent poems also offer an incredibly rich meditation on the experience of the patient, weary virgins of the parable).

Image Source: British Museum 1868,0612.2038

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