Our Lady and the Thread of Life

Fleur Dorrell explores some of the less commonly known symbols in art and scripture related to Our Lady, and their wider meanings for our faith and spirituality.

icon-home » Saints & Seasons » Our Lady » Our Lady and the Thread of Life

Where was Our Lady when the Archangel Gabriel visited her?

This month we celebrate the feast of the Annunciation on the 25th March. But where was Our Lady when the Archangel Gabriel visited her and told her that she would give birth to Jesus Christ, Our Lord? Was Mary at home, in the Temple or somewhere else? We have so little information from Luke 1:26-38 about this life-changing encounter. So let’s have a look at how some artists and other early Christian texts have interpreted where Mary might have been when she received ‘The Call’ and what she was doing.

The Proto-Evangelium of St James, traditionally attributed to James, but probably written by someone else, is one of several second century gospels. It has influenced our understanding of key biblical figures such as Mary and Joseph with its richness of detail found only in these early but non-Biblical or apocryphal texts. While their validity has been questioned, these stories led to representations of Mary spinning and carrying water at the Annunciation from the 5th century onwards. These stories come from chapters 10 – 12 in the Proto-Evangelium where the council of priests wanted to make the Temple Veil. Mary is chosen to assist and to spin the most valuable threads of scarlet and true purple. She is then reported as going to fetch water. It is there at the well that Gabriel visits Mary and proclaims her new role as the mother of Christ.

Was Mary an educated woman?

Perhaps the image of Mary reading a book in her bedroom or praying in a private room or garden common to most European portrayals, is derived from the expectation that Jesus’ mother must surely have been educated or, is based on a later 8-9th century Gospel of Pseudo-Mathew where she is portrayed as more learned and wise than her companions. However, the Synoptic gospels imply that she is poor, and unlikely to have access to reading. Her knowledge of the scriptures, so clear in her Magnificat Song, is likely the fruit of listening in the synagogue and singing the psalms rather than access to a library!

Perhaps too, the image of her reading the book of the scriptures is a visual representation of that phrase “She pondered these things in her heart”, slowly drawing out the Old Testament predictions of the Messiah’s coming. So it is often the text of Isaiah 7:14 that artists present her reading from, to maintain this connection:

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”

What does the image of Mary spinning wool symbolise?

However, if we take a look at some of the lesser known images of Mary where she is either spinning or collecting water, we discover a different theology of Mary’s whereabouts and occupation. In Eastern images, Mary either stands with a distaff or is seated on a throne because she is the all-holy Mother of God-made-man when Gabriel flies in to make his announcement. She raises her right hand to accept God’s message, while spinning a coloured yarn with her left hand. Sometimes her thread is the same colour as her cloak.

The power of this image becomes clearer. As a Temple Virgin Mary spun the wool that became the veil of the Temple and the vestments of the priests. But in an altogether more profound way she becomes the Holy Tabernacle and the Veil of God’s presence as she shares the flesh and blood of her womb with her divine son. And so the scarlet and purple thread symbolise her holiness and divine royalty. Just as they do in Christ’s own gift.

The Jewish Mishnah (8, 5-6) also describes the veil’s significance in the life of the Temple:

“The veil of the Temple was a palm-length in width. It was woven with seventy two smooth stitches each made of twenty four threads. The length was of forty cubits and the width of twenty cubits. Eighty two virgins wove it. Two veils were made each year and three hundred priests were needed to carry it to the pool.”

These connections are further strengthened by some other symbolism: Mary becomes the new Eve just as Jesus is the new Adam as St Paul proclaims to the Romans in chapter 5.

Mary’s womb becomes the new Ark of the new covenant, the new Tabernacle where the presence of God may dwell. Jesus takes this idea further by describing his own sacrificial body as the Temple that will be rebuilt in 3 days in Mark 14:58, 15:29; John 2:19-22. And In Hebrews chapters 6, 9-10, the author describes Christ as the High Priest, who allows universal access to the Holy of Holies, the most holy place in the Temple that everyone was forbidden to enter in the old order.

Left. 6th century icon. The Virgin with Sts Theodore and George. St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Egypt. wiki/File:Mary_%26_Child_Icon_Sinai_6th_century.jpg

Centre. 12th century icon. The Annunciation. Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow.

Right. 14th century double-sided icon. The Annunciation. Icon Gallery, Ohrid, Macedonia.

We are familiar with the Virgin Mary being portrayed in blue or red clothing. It is less common to see Mary dressed in purple as we do with the Ohrid icon from Macedonia. But since Hebrew is a pictorial language, colours have meaning and a significant role in the text beyond mere description. Everything in the Temple was created according to specific instructions and criteria so that when in Exodus 26:1a it reads:

“Moreover you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twisted linen, and blue, purple, and crimson yarns…” we know that this relates to more than simply textiles.

When you mix blue and red you create purple. The union of colours is as significant as purple’s royal connotations. In uniting these two colours the Temple is seen as a centre of union and reconciliation, as the Tent of Meeting where heaven and earth can join. God and man under one roof but with two realities. Connected through both colour and form.

Thus when Mary wears purple, spins purple and scarlet thread, and houses the Christ-child in her womb, she embodies the divine and the human as both visible and hidden, present to God and to the world. This is echoed in Proverbs 31:10-31 in the perfect wife who knows how to work the distaff and spindle, who makes clothes of fine purple and who praises the Lord all her life. The same scarlet and purple will reappear in the gospels to reinforce their divine symbolism.

We observe the following details in the Passion narratives:

They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head.  Matthew 27: 28-29a

And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him.  Mark 15:17

And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe.  John 19:2

In Luke’s Gospel, while not describing these colours at the trial of Jesus, it nevertheless begins and ends in the Temple. Only in Luke is a link clearly being made between the Temple sacrifices and Jesus’ own sacrifice on the cross. Thus uniting Mary’s Temple role with her Son’s revision of the Temple sacrifice, deriving ideas from both Old and New Testaments on the body and its role in worshipping God.

We return to the idea of Mary fetching water at the Annunciation as described in the Proto-Evangelium of St James in chapter 11:

“And she took the pitcher, and went out to fill it with water. And, behold, a voice saying: Hail, you who hast received grace: the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women! And she looked round, on the right and on the left, to see when this voice came.”

In the Old and New Testaments women appear at wells. Isaac meets Rebekah at the well in Genesis 24:15, and Jacob finds Rachel getting water for the sheep in Genesis 29:1-11, and these encounters secure their marriages; as does Moses in Exodus 2 where having sat down at the well, he is led to his future wife, Zipporah. Jesus has one of his most important conversations with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:1-42.

Wells symbolise vessels of water and fountains of new life, making their association with Mary’s womb and its gift easy to grasp. By portraying Mary carrying water she continues this symbolism and its meaning into a new understanding of our faith; and in which every baptism in Christ, by being born again in water and in the spirit, becomes a new well of salvation.

L: 12th century Greek manuscript. Annunciation at the Spring. Homilies of James Kokkinobaphos (Paris, BnF, MS gr. 1208, fol. 159v) ima.princeton.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/bgmparis1208.159v.jpg

R: c. 1579. Annunciation, San Marco Basilica, Venice, Italy.

This exploration calls to mind two particular Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. First, Mary as a child under her mother Anne’s supervision, embroidering a red banner, alluding to her Temple role. Her father Joachim is pruning a vine; the Holy Spirit and the Angel are small in size as they await the appointed time. The palm branch and thorns on the floor represent Christ’s future death. The books symbolise hope, faith and charity and Mary’s faith and learning.

Second, Mary is interrupted in her bed at the Annunciation, where her tapestry is now complete, her halo more solid, her white garment reiterating her purity and a blue screen becomes the Temple veil separating her from the world in this sacred place. The Archangel Gabriel is an adult arriving on feet of fire. The Holy Spirit has just entered the room signified by tiny flame about to be blown out on the wall sconce. And we see that the lilies Mary has sewn are not all in bloom, but they will be when Christ is born.

L – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Girlhood of Mary, Virgin. 1848-9. Tate Britain Gallery

R – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Annunciation. 1850. Tate Britain Gallery

Now we come to John William Waterhouse’s Annunciation painted just before the First World War. This interpretation unites all our themes in one painting: Mary is kneeling in a spectacular purple dress and scarlet sash, while her spinning lies abandoned at the sight of the Archangel Gabriel’s appearance. He is clothed in purple and pink wings matched by the flowers between them drawing on their combined colours. The now traditional lilies are offered to Mary as a sign of her virginity, and her water jugs lie at the bottom of the steps ready for the next collection.

Mary’s body language permits us to gauge her thoughts. Here we see her put her right hand on her head and her left hand on her chest. These two gestures seem to convey contrasting reactions to the Archangel’s message. If the hand on her head suggests confusion, from not understanding how she could be pregnant as a virgin, then Mary’s hand on her chest leads her to a deeper response of gratitude and praise towards God’s invitation.

Hail Mary, full of grace
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women
and blessed
is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, mother of God
pray for us sinners
now and at the hour of our death.

John William Waterhouse, The Annunciation, 1914. Private Collection.