18th-Century Sevillian School, Virgin & The Distaff

18th-Century Sevillian School, Virgin & The Distaff

This early 18th-century Spanish oil painting depicts the Virgin Mary spinning as a child. It’s a rare devotional piece, probably commissioned by a church or convent.

In this rather unusual depiction of the Virgin Mary, we see her at age three or four sitting in a red upholstered armchair, spinning wool from a distaff held under her left arm. She wears a small cape across her shoulders held with a decorative clasp, while her headband is embellished with jewels. Such images date back to the middle ages but became popular in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, particularly in Seville and Peru. Peruvian depictions tend to be characterised by a greater level of ornate decoration.

The basis of the iconography relates to the apocryphal gospels, such as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew which describes Mary’s childhood at the Temple of Jerusalem. As a pious devoted child, her time was spent spinning, weaving and in prayer. The Gospel explains:

“Even though she was only three years old, she walked with such a firm step and spoke so perfectly and was so devoted to the praise of God that she seemed not to be a little girl but an adult. She dedicated herself to prayers as if she were already thirty years old. Her face shone so brightly that it was barely possible for anyone to look straight at her. She was dedicated to working in wool; and whatever the old women were unable to do, she could untangle, even though she was of such a tender age.”

This image became so popular in Seville that records show similar paintings changing hands via women’s dowries. But today, very few remain in circulation. It’s unknown whether any other copies exist in UK collections, as none are listed publicly. The Denver Art Museum is said to own the only Spanish example in the USA. That particular oil painting contained a hidden iron crochet needle between its stretcher and canvas.

In terms of the originating artist, it’s impossible to ascertain. But Andrés Pérez (c. 1660-1727) of Seville appears to be an inspiration for those working within his circle.

Housed in a later frame.

Medium: Oil on canvas
Overall size: 17½” x 22” / 45cm x 56cm
Year of creation: c. 1700
Condition: A crease through the middle probably due to previous folding. Areas of overpaint. Later stretcher. Darkening. Craquelure but the paint is stable. Frame with some light wear.

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