Bible study · essay · history & philosophy · spinning · textiles as fine arts · textiles in literature

Red Threads & the Feast of the Annunciation

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Annunciation, celebrating Gabriel’s proclamation to Mary that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit and bear the God-made-flesh into the world.

waterhouse annunciation

When I began collecting references to textiles in literature and art, my interest in the Annunciation deepened thanks to a piece by John William Waterhouse. I reflected on the personal and biblical resonances of this painting in my first post toward a “whole cloth” ethic, which you can read here. I was fascinated (not surprisingly) by Mary’s dual work when the angel arrives: she is both spinning and studying Scripture, offering a rich image of work-as-worship.

At the time I wrote that first piece, I explored the biblical symbolism behind Mary’s spinning (esp. the relationship between the women spinning for the Tabernacle, and Mary offering her flesh for the Christ who would now “tabernacle” among us). Since then, I have also discovered a treasure-house of other traditions surrounding these images. Christians across time have used images of Mary’s spinning to affirm one of the central mysteries of our faith: that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” — taking on a body that could delight, suffer, die, and be raised to new life.

The earliest Christian art depicting the Annunciation shows Mary spinning thread when Gabriel arrives. Usually she spins purple or scarlet thread. The image probably has its source in the Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal account of Mary’s childhood. This story imagines Mary, as a young girl, being granted the special honor of spinning and weaving the yarns for the Temple’s Holy of Holies (10-12). Mary’s spinning became a standard feature of the iconography of the Annunciation, appearing as early as the second century in the Catacomb of Priscilla. One of the most stunning examples comes from the 5th-century mosaic in the triumphal arch of Basilica di Santa Mario Maggiore in Rome.

Detail from the triumphal arch of Maria Maggiore. Note the red wool in Mary’s lap, which she draws from a basket at her side.

Before the thirteenth century, these images appeared in both Eastern and Western depictions of the Annunciation, but, after the thirteenth century, imagery in Western art tends to shift, replacing Mary’s distaff, thread, and basket with a book. Christians in the East preserved this imagery much longer.

Mary spins in this 17th-cetury Coptic manuscript. By the 17th century, few depictions of Mary spinning appear in Western art. Source: Illuminated Manuscript, Gondarine sensul, Annunciation, Walters Manuscript 36.10, fol. 1v

As Dorian Llywelyn, SJ, explains, there are many historical factors that may have contributed to this change, including “the revival of learning that began during Charlemagne’s reign, the history of preaching, the growth of female religious life and literacy, and above all the spectacular burgeoning of Marian piety.”

As a scholar of literature, I find rich meaning in Mary’s engagement with her Book, but I can’t help mourn the disappearance of the spindle. While Mary’s reading calls our minds to the invisible work of the Spirit as we hear the Word, her spindle affirms that the Incarnation transforms the daily work of our hands into worship — work with eternal consequences.

Even more profoundly, Mary’s spindle reminds us that in becoming man, God did not create new human flesh ex nihilo. Rather, he called upon a daughter of Eve to participate in the redemption of all creation. Proclus of Constantinople, a 4th-century bishop, imagines the Holy Spirit as a weaver, shaping “the ancient fleece of Adam” into Christ’s body. In her willingness to participate with God, Mary offers her own body as the purple and scarlet threads for the new tabernacle. It is a divine moment, but also the most ordinary: a girl spinning thread, a woman opening her body to the terrible joy of childbearing.

This iconography of the Annunciation offers fascinating questions for anyone who likes a historical or theological puzzle, but I think that Mary’s red and purple threads matter to ordinary believers, too. How we picture what we believe matters. Our images of Mary’s “yes,” of Christ’s ministry, of the Psalmist’s praise or lament — these pictures take form and shape in our own lives. Whether we realize it or not, we are daily enacting or rejecting the icons of our faith.

How do we imagine Mary when the angel surprised her? Do we see her sitting idly at a window, bored with her ordinary life? Do we picture her frantic in the marketplace, rushing to get and spend? Or do we see her in a home she has helped sustain with her own hands? Do we imagine her studying the Scriptures, seeking God’s heart through His law and prophets? Is she spinning thread, preparing to clothe her family or her temple?

Personally, I love to draw the images of East and West together, as Waterhouse has done. I see Mary reading with eager eyes, then letting the thread twist in her hand as she puzzles, ponders, prays over what she has read. It is an image I pray will become real in my own life: faithful study, steady work. And when the angel comes, his message will not destroy the little works of ordinary days, but fulfill them.

May it be for us as it was for our sister Mary, in all the works of our hands and the meditations of our heart.


6 thoughts on “Red Threads & the Feast of the Annunciation

  1. One of the images of the Annunciation that I saw in Florence (dated 1603, by Allori) shows Mary reading from what looks like a prayer-book and tatting lace. The lace has been set by, and the book is closer to her, but it’s plain she is both reading and working. The lace is in gold thread.

    1. That’s fascinating! I would love to compile a whole book of these images, tracing the way the image moves from ancient days. I wonder what a contemporary artist might show — Mary working at a sewing machine, or knitting, perhaps?

  2. Today we ask for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title “undoer or untier of knots”. As our lives become twisted and knotted with problems, we can turn to Our Lady to ask for her intercession. She is often depicted untying a rope or ribbon under this title. Perhaps her earthly life had prepared her for this devotion. After all, God chose her to be the Ark of the New Covenant.

    1. I only recently learned about the Virgin Mary as “undoer of knots” recently from some of my Catholic friends. I’d like to learn more about this tradition, as it certainly seems to be a continuation of the beautiful imagery of the Annunciation. Thank you for sharing, Mark!

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