BMCR 2019.07.26

Late Antique Images of the Virgin Annunciate Spinning: Allotting the Scarlet and the Purple. Texts and studies in Eastern Christianity, 11

, Late Antique Images of the Virgin Annunciate Spinning: Allotting the Scarlet and the Purple. Texts and studies in Eastern Christianity, 11. Leiden: Brill, 2018. xiii, 240. ISBN 9789004346758 €176,00.

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This book, a revision of the author’s dissertation, is the first full-length study devoted to early (mostly fourth- and fifth-century) images of the Annunciation in which the Virgin Mary is spinning or accompanied by a wool basket or both. While the earliest securely identified image of Mary is the late second-century Adoration of the Magi in the Priscilla Catacombs, Rome,1 the spinning Annunciate image is certainly early. The scene comes from the second-century apocryphal Protevangelium of James (hereafter, PJ) in which Gabriel encounters Mary as she spins wool for the “veil of the temple.” The introduction states, “No other symbol from the late ancient world could equal the spindle and distaff in illustrating the capable attributes of virtue in images of the Mother of God” (1). Five (footnoted) chapters plus introduction and conclusion advance the thesis that scenes of Mary spinning privilege “the virtuous matron type over the ascetic virgin” (2). Numerous illustrations indicate the variety of objects depicting this subject, from sarcophagi to pilgrim tokens, from gold medallions to textiles. The subject is interesting, but readers should use this book with caution. After summarizing the contents, I will discuss my reservations.

The introduction proposes that portrayals of Mary engaged in the archetypal matronly task of spinning aligned marriage and house-holding activities with spiritual power. According to the author, the “growing influence of monastic asceticism and the codified rules established by the Church Councils of the fifth and sixth centuries” brought a new emphasis on “Mary’s virginal chastity ” (author’s italics) as the model of holiness for Christian women, a model that “was nearly impossible to emulate and which undermined the sanctity of familial relationships” (1).

Chapter 1, “Roots and Precedents,” covers the visual and textual evidence for Roman (and to a lesser extent, Jewish) linkage between wool-working and ideals of wifely chastity and industriousness. Also invoked are the Fates ( Moirai), Classical myth, the wilderness Tabernacle (Exodus 35:25-26), and mother goddesses. Chapter 2 places texts advocating female asceticism alongside others that viewed marriage more positively. Among the former are the Acts of Paul and Thecla, works by Ambrose and Jerome, and Proclus’s “First Homily” (431), in which Mary’s womb becomes the workshop weaving Christ’s flesh. Inclusive approaches to spiritual status are found in Jovinian, Helvidius, and the Liber ad Gregoriam. The author envisions an early domestic cult of Mary where “images of the spinning Annunciate were revered” (65).

The focus of Chapter 3, “Matron,” turns to jewelry decorated with the spinning Virgin. These almost certainly belonged to women and are plausibly interpreted as related to marriage, fertility, and well-being. Chapter 4, “The Household,” begins with a gazetteer of elite women like Galla Placidia and Pulcheria as householders who commissioned, purchased, and owned these objects, then goes on to examine pilgrim tokens and ampullas. Textiles follow, especially the late fourth/early fifth-century “Mary silk” in Bern showing Mary in a series of episodes from the PJ including the Annunciation (where she does not spin). The chapter ends with a discussion of textiles in relation to burials and death. Most of Chapter 5 is devoted to an excellent iconographic analysis of the fourth-century Pignatta Sarcophagus in Ravenna along with a brief discussion of Christian Phrygian tombstones which depict wool working implements but no Annunciation scenes.

I turn now to the problems. First, the author is familiar with current trends in early Christian studies but often oversimplifies, not just generally, but more problematically with regard to Marian theology and devotion after 431, when Mary became Theotokos. It is simply wrong to claim that as a “divine Theotokos type,” Mary was elevated “beyond lay accessibility and became central to the rhetorical codification of Orthodoxy by the fifth century” (2). This declaration ignores the multifaceted, multi-locational, and ever-evolving traditions of Marian devotion. Mary is the Byzantine warrior credited with single-handedly routing Constantinople’s attackers.2 Mary resolutely deploys her biblical knowledge to defend herself against Joseph’s suspicions in a Syriac dialogue poem.3 Frescoes from seventh-century Egypt show her nursing Jesus.4 Arentzen has even argued that Romanos the Melodist (sixth-century) stages the Annunciation as an erotic encounter.5

There is a bewildering reference to scholars who claim that early Christian “fathers and husbands imposed images like the spinning Annunciate upon daughters, wives and mothers to keep them in their place at home, engaged in the drudgery of daily life” (184). E. Clark, G. Clark, and S. Elm (84) are accused of celebrating the spirituality of ascetic women at the expense of everyday Christian women, and of taking an approach “so essentialist that it restricts our understanding of the domestic and devotional experience of Christian women” (66). On the contrary, contemporary scholars have drawn attention to women as leaders in the early Church, married women and widows as benefactors, and mothers as teachers of their children. This book’s own contention that images of the spinning Annunciate spoke primarily to women could itself be viewed as essentializing. Yes, the spindle and wool basket belonged to the realia of women’s lives, but the spiritual connotations assigned to the Virgin with her spindle could transcend the boundaries of both gender and social status. Harvey points out that Ephraim of Syria (fourth century) imagines God and Jesus as weavers and God as keeping house. 6 Sessa’s recent work shows how bishops in Late Antiquity were judged according to traditional ideals of household management.7

Promised evidence for women’s responses to images of the spinning Virgin remains largely speculative, as in this example: “…we must not disregard the possibility that late antique women appropriated these motifs … as potent symbols on objects they wore and owned” (102-3). Wording can be perplexing; what is meant by the statement that “the earliest artistic evidence associated with death and burial are ( sic) clear indicators for a widespread Christian fascination with the matronly model of Mary…” (210)? That a few textiles decorated with the spinning Annunciate were used as burial shrouds, while suggestive, hardly provides evidence of “the Christian matron as the unsung participant in holy paideia or culture during late antiquity” (13), especially given the great variety of images on surviving shrouds. Intuition is invoked: “That the image of the Virgin Annunciate spinning did evoke a consistent response from individuals can be intuited from the number of pilgrimage objects surviving…” (151); but pilgrimage objects had many uses and the Adoration of the Magi far outnumbers the spinning Annunciate on tokens and ampullae. Basil of Caesarea (fourth century) urged his community to contemplate the edifying nature of their daily tasks (101), but the suggestion that an ordinary matron could engage in similar introspection cannot carry the weight of the claim that the iconography of the Virgin spinning is evidence for an early lay-centered cult of Mary. The spinning Annunciate must necessarily be considered alongside other early Marian images and texts as Shoemaker has recently shown.8

Dating and the identification of some images deserve more caution. Dating the many unprovenanced early Christian objects is notoriously difficult, but one cannot propose earlier dates simply because items assigned to earlier centuries are “conspicuously missing” (cf. 111). Omitted from the discussion of the so-called second-century Annunciation in the Priscilla Catacombs is the fact that this identification has been and remains controversial.9 This is equally true of another Priscilla Catacomb image, claimed as the “earliest extant image of the Virgin and child” (183).10 It is also unclear by what criteria items were selected for discussion. There are other early images of the spinning Annunciate—a pilgrim token and at least one pilgrim ampulla in the famous collection at Monza, for example— which highlights how useful an appendix listing early Christian artifacts with the spinning Virgin would have been.

The book also omits references to scholarship on the PJ, even though the last few years have witnessed something of an explosion in PJ studies; a number of them have useful points to make about the Annunciation narrative.11 It is indeed plausible “that the apocryphal texts which detail the extra-canonical details of Mary’s life were formulated as popular tales in the early church and became well-known enough to be written down by the second century” (63). Any claim for the origin of the motif in women’s household cult must interrogate its function within the overall narrative of the PJ. The claim that “[t]he degree to which the stories and tales that became Christian apocrypha are evidence of the earliest Marian cult cannot be over-emphasized” (63) is problematic since outside the PJ, Mary as Jesus’s mother—and thus a householder—features only peripherally in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (second century). When she does appear in other early apocrypha, Mary is primarily a ritual leader, not a maternal figure. 12

There are scattered factual errors. The oldest manuscript of the PJ is late third- or early fourth-century not second-century (3). The resurrected Christ never appears to his mother in scriptural accounts (contra p. 198). An episode involving Aphrodite in Nonnus’s fifth-century Dionysiaca (24.237–329) is cited as evidence against the “spindle’s exclusive association with ascetic virginity” (33). However, contrary to the assertion that the spindle “provides a sexually charged precedent for Christian iconography” (33), the “distaff-enamored” Aphrodite bungles the job and has to return the loom to Athena, the virgin weaver. The pages for the Gambero citation (200) in footnote 30 should be 279-280. Finally, unlike most of the book, the introduction has a distracting number of typographical errors and unclear sentences.

These are serious shortcomings, but this book is still a useful source for the symbolism of spinning and weaving in late antiquity and it brings welcome attention to an important early Christian Marian image.


1. Mary Joan Leith, “Earliest Depictions of the Virgin Mary,” Biblical Archaeology Review (Mar-Apr, 2017)

2. Bissera Pentcheva, “The Virgin of Constantinople: Power and Belief,” in Byzantine Women and their World, edited by Ioli Kalavrezou (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003) 113-118.

3. Sebastian Brock, “A Dialogue between Joseph and Mary from the Christian Orient,” Logos: Cylchgrawn Diwinyddol Cymru (The Welsh Theological Review) 1.3 (1992) 4-11.

4. Elizabeth S. Bolman, “The Enigmatic Galactotrophousa and the Cult of the Virgin Mary in Egypt,” in Maria Vassilaki, editor, Images of the Mother of God: Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium (Ashgate, 2005) 2-22.

5. Thomas Arentzen, The Virgin in Song: Mary and the Poetry of Romanos the Melodist. Divinations: Rereading late ancient religion (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017) Chapter 2. BMCR 2018.02.39

6. Susan Ashbrook Harvey, “Feminine Imagery for the Divine: The Holy Spirit, The Odes of Solomon and Early Syriac Tradition,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 37 (1993) 133.

7. Kristina Sessa, The Formation of Papal Authority in Late Antique Italy: Roman Bishops and the Domestic Sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

8. Stephen Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

9. Geri Parlby, What Can Art Tell Us about the Cult of the Virgin Mary in the Early Roman Catholic Church?: A Re-evaluation of the Evidence for Marian Images in Late Antiquity (PhD Dissertation, University of Roehampton, 2010) 55-56.

10. Geri Parlby, The Origins of Marian Art in the Catacombs and the Problems of Identification,” in Chris Maunder, ed., Origins of the Cult of the Virgin Mary (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2008) 41–56.

11. Notably, Lily C. Vuong, Gender and Purity in the Protevangelium of James (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013); Alexander Toepel, Das Protevangelium des Jakobus: Ein Beitrag zur neueren Diskussion um Herkunft, Auslegung und theologische Einordnung (Münster: Aschendorff, 2014); Eric M. Vanden Eykel, “But Their Faces Were Looking Up:” Author and Reader in the Protevangelium of James (London; New York: Bloomsbury T & T Clark: 2016); and the still valuable Ronald F. Hock, The Infancy Gospels of James and Thomas: Scholars Bible with Original Text, Translation and Notes (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1996).

12. Stephen Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016) 64-99.