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The Child Mary Spinning

A conversation between Dr. Kathryn Santner and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank in front of The Child Mary Spinning, 18th century, oil on canvas, Cusco, Peru, 36 x 28 inches (Collection of Carl & Marilynn Thoma) This video was made possible through the generous support of the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Narrator 1] We're here in Chicago at the Thoma Foundation, standing in front of a painting from 18th-century Peru, that's showing the child Mary spinning as she looks out at us and I feel compelled to return her gaze. - [Narrator 2] She stares out at us from a chair, holding a spindle and distaff, and around her wrist, she has choral bracelets. At the center of her chest is a broach with the anagram of her name. She's wearing beautifully elaborate garments with gold embroidery and delicate lace edging on the sleeves. Surrounding her is a border of flowers and birds. The story comes from non-canonical biblical texts known as the Apocrypha. In those stories, we find out that Mary was taken to the temple by her parents, where she was raised in seclusion and devoted her time to reading and prayer and to spinning cloth. And in one episode, Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel while she is spinning a cloth for the temple. And he announces that she will conceive the Christ Child. - [Narrator 1] And it's fascinating how much attention the artist here has paid to the different textiles. Look at the cape that's fastened by that broach. It is a brownish gray, and it's decorated with these red and black designs bordered by this golden lace-like embroidery. And then she has these marvelous big puffy sleeves that also have lace on the edges. And then she has a fitted red bodice that's laced up the center, also decorated with golden embroidery. And then her skirt is a completely different style of textile. And it's filled with more elaborate floral designs in silvers and reds and an ochre color. And look at her hair. It's perfectly held in place by this elaborate headband that is adorned with pearls and emeralds, and also has a red bow on it. I just love that there's this one curl that comes down onto her forehead and curves back upwards. That reminds me of children and how they inevitably always seem to have some hair out of place. - [Narrator 2] Emanating from her is this halo with 12 golden stars. - [Narrator 1] Look at the Virgin's face. You can barely see any of the breaststrokes. It's been relatively smooth out. She has this almost waxed-like quality to her skin that offsets her eyes, and it's striking. - [Narrator 2] In that floral border, you can see carnations, lilies, roses, tulips, and these flowers are not just placed there for ornamental value, but they also signal Mary's virtues, her purity, her humility, her sacrifice. - [Narrator 1] The floral border derives from Flemish paintings, say the works by Peter Paul Rubens. - [Narrator 2] The bottom half of her body doesn't seem to take up very much space. She's sitting in this chair awkwardly. - [Narrator 1] And this type of chair called the friar's chair, was often used in paintings to signify someone of importance. That she is seated in it is a way of demonstrating her significance. Now, the pose that you mentioned that does look odd. It almost looks like she doesn't have knees or that you can't get a sense of her body is because this is one of many different versions of this type of painting that were based on a prototype where this pose comes from. All the different versions showing the scene, both in the Spanish Americas as well as in Spain, often show the Virgin Mary's body in this way. - [Narrator 2] And if you look at the friar's chair, you'll also notice that like the textiles on Mary's garments, it's beautifully adorned with these gold designs, called brocateado. It refers to this gold embellishment that was used widely in the Cusco School in the 18th century. And it's interesting because we do see many examples of this in Spain and the 17th and 18th centuries. And we see it in Peru, but we don't see it elsewhere in Latin America. And we might wonder why that is. And one possible reason for that is because of the textiles and the process of spinning itself. There's a long and rich history of textile traditions in the Andes that continued through the Inca period. And some of the elements in Mary's costume might relate to, or be interpreted by indigenous viewers as relating to that tradition. - [Narrator 1] Textiles were more valuable than gold. They were one of the most important indicators of status. They would even use textiles to wrap objects or natural elements as a way to reinforce their sacredness, their divine essence. And so that we see here, the Virgin Mary, a holy figure in the Christian tradition wrapped or dressed in so many luxurious textiles, perhaps indicates the ongoing importance of wrapping secret bodies or secret things after the Spanish conquest throughout what we call the viceregal or colonial era. Some scholars have interpreted this subject in the Andes to represent the Virgin Mary in the guise of an Inca princess, as if it's a syncretic blending of Christian imagery and Inca ideas. Some people disagree with that interpretation though, because there are prototypes in Spain, albeit with some differences. - [Narrator 2] We often find paintings of Mary in convents, where she was meant to serve as an example to the young women who came in as novices and spent their days, like Mary, in seclusion, praying, reading and creating elaborate textiles for the church. And often in these convents, this painting would be hung alongside another showing the Christ Child pricking his finger on a thorn. - [Narrator 1] And in those paintings of the Christ Child, you find similar visual features. The chair is often the same. They're both seated in the same way, suggesting that there was a reason for continuing to draw on these models that had some greater significance. (gentle music)