The Many Hands of Mary’s Maid (Dennis Aubrey)


And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.
And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.
He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:
And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
Luke 1:30-33

On the far wall of the north transept of the Basilique Sainte Foy in Conques is one of the finest sculptures in this magnificent pilgrimage church, the triptych of the Annunciation. As those familiar with Christian theophany know, the Annunciation celebrates the appearance of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary to announce that she will conceive and give birth to Jesus, the Son of God. Fittingly, this event is considered the conception of Jesus and celebrated on March 25, nine months prior to his birth.

This sculpture is often attributed to the anonymous “Master of Conques,” whose work can be found throughout France and Spain, including Saint Isadore de Léon and the famed Puerta de las Platerias at Santiago. The ensemble features life-sized figures and is placed about 25 feet above the ground where it dominates the open end of the transept. Scholars think that the Annunciation was moved from the western portal at some time and replaced at this spot.

In this presentation, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, bowing slightly to her; his outstretched wings are crammed into the small space allotted to him. His hair is parted down the middle. The scroll that he is holding reads GABRIEL ANGELVS, “the Angel Gabriel.”

Annunciation panel,  Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Annunciation panel, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Mary is represented as a young woman, with her hand raised in front of her. I have read descriptions of this Mary as “serene”, but do not agree. It seems that she is afraid of the angel and the gesture is one of submission. This tallies with the “Fear not” admonition in Luke, and also the passage in the apocryphal Gospel of James (Chapter XI), “And she looked about right and left, to see whence this voice came. And becoming afraid, she went away to her home, and set down the waterpot; and taking the purple she sat on her seat and spun it. And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood before her, saying, Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found favour before the Lord, and thou shalt conceive from his word.”

Further evidence that this depiction derives from the Gospel of James is found because Mary holds a distaff used for spinning, which was described only in that source. In this sculpture, she hand the distaff to a maid-servant, unseen from the front view.

From the side view we can clearly see the maidservant, but a mystery starts to present itself. The maid’s left hand holds a ball of wool attached to the distaff. The hand in the front view that takes the distaff also seems to represent her left hand. For this reason, residents of Conques describe the maid with three hands.

Detail, Annunciation panel,  Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Detail, Annunciation panel, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

However, with a bit more investigation, I think that the mystery is solved. In the highlighted region, we appear to have another hand reaching up for the distaff. Since this is the right hand, the position of the wrist indicates that the hand should take the distaff from below, not on top.

Hand detail, Annunciation panel,  Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Hand detail, Annunciation panel, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The final proof is a close investigation of the shot from the front. In the highlighted area we can see the hand of the maid, with her thumb visible on top between the first two fingers. This would be anatomically consistent with the “reaching” right arm from the previous detail, the hand taking the distaff from below.

Hand detail, Annunciation panel, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Hand detail, Annunciation panel, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

This post is, of course, a bagatelle. This was not a scholarly dispute to be resolved, but merely a curiosity pointed out by the locals, probably to amuse themselves at our expense. We are satisfied that some unfortunate medieval sculptor didn’t make a gaffe and we can all sleep well knowing that this artist didn’t go down to the end of his days derided by his amused fellows.

Location: 44.599227° 2.398132°

10 responses to “The Many Hands of Mary’s Maid (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Another beautiful post! Glad you figured out the hands. As a weaver and spinner, I have a technical quibble. Mary does not appear to be holding a distaff but rather a hand spindle. A distaff was a long stick with a shaped top upon which a mass of linen (sometimes wool) was arranged and loosely tied; the spindle was what actually spun to twist the raw fibers of the distaff into finished thread. (See a good medieval image showing both at http://www.pinterest.com/pin/562105597213126600/) In fact, if the text specifies that she was spinning purple, it probably would have been wool, because it was (and is) more difficult to dye linen. Purple from ancient times was always associated with royalty because it was a very costly dye to make. Wool does not require a distaff at all; it’s optional due to the shortness of the fiber. More information than anyone wants or needs, I know! 🙂

    • Carroll, what wonderful information you provide. I only called it a distaff because I don’t know any better – it is called that in one of my books. To support your idea, a different translation of the same passage of the Gospel of James reads “And she looked about her upon the right hand and upon the left, to see whence this voice should be: and being filled with trembling she~ went to her house and set down the pitcher, and took the purple and sat down upon her seat and drew out the thread.” Thanks for this detail, it made my day.

  2. Thank you as ever for such careful, fascinating, looking; and then, thinking.

    (I vaguely recall from childhood the terms ‘distaff side’ (eg of a family) as female and linked to left (hand), even sinister; and ‘sword side’ as male and linked to right (hand), even dextrous.) Maybe I’ve invented that memory!)

    • John, “distaff” is still used to denote feminine activities; you didn’t invent that at all. I used to have a teacher who loved to teach etymology (my well-rememberéd Mr. Priebe); I remember “sinister” and “candidate” particularly. Candidatus, clothed in white. If you ran for office in republican Rome, you wore a white toga so that everyone could see the behavior of those running for office. Too bad we can’t do that now.

    • Thanks, Covetotop. San Isidoro de León is magnificent, certainly on our itinerary when we start to really do Spain in earnest. There is so much to explore; sometimes I am daunted by the prospect.

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