While doing some research on artistic depictions of textile production, I came across several 14th century paintings depicting knitting madonnas. I became very intrigued.
This first painting, Madonna dell’Umiltà by Vitale da Bologna [source] depicts Mary holding her knitting in one hand and a knitting needle being grasped by both mother and child. Her gaze is tenderly focused on her child.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s The Holy Family depicts the family at home, seated together on a rug. Once again Mary is knitting, this time on a set of double pointed needles, and the child Jesus is at her side.
The final image I have to share is Meister Bertran von Minden’s Buxtehude Madonna [source]. This depiction, done later than the previous paintings (early C15), shows Mary knitting a garment in the round on double pointed needles. An older Jesus occupies himself with a book and appears to be thinking as he gazes heavenward.
What I find fascinating about these paintings is the knitting. Medieval art is full of depictions of Biblical scenes and saints’ lives. The above paintings are depictions of Christ as a child and his mother caring for him, and on a historical timeline would have taken place around 0-10 A.D. The earliest known examples of knitting, however, date back to sometime between the 11th-14th centuries (about the time of these paintings), and do not coincide with the historical timeframe of Christ’s nativity.
The Madonna, as depicted in art, has long been a symbol of Christian virtue. In artistic depictions she embodies an idealistic image of motherhood, modesty, and religious devotion. The imposition of industriousness in the form of textile production on this image of feminine virtue is an interesting one. Was this depiction designed to show that Mary was industrious and clothed her family? Was it to show that an idealized woman produced textiles? Does this hearken back to the classic Odyssian model of Penelope the weaver, who engaged in a weaving project to preserve her marriage and family? Does it present her performing a commonplace task, one that other women of the era would identify with or find relatable?
How are these images related to C20 representations of women knitting? Find out in my next post…