Rediscovering Mary, mother of God, with Catherine Taylor [MIPodcast #101]
For centuries, Christians have celebrated Mary as the miraculous virgin and Mother of God. Catherine Taylor suggests a much richer history of traditions about Mary, much closer to the experiences of Christian women down through the ages. These traditions aren’t found in the Bible. We’ll need to look at other texts and ancient artifacts—burial boxes, jewelry, art. Catherine Taylor specializes in late antique Christian art history and iconography and joins us to talk about women of the ancient world.
Images discussed in this episode are available in the transcript.
Catherine Gines Taylor is the Hugh W. Nibley Postdoctoral Fellow. She is author of Late Antique Images of the Virgin Annunciate Spinning: Allotting the Scarlet and the Purple. She specializes in late antique Christian art history and iconography. Dr. Taylor holds graduate degrees from the University of Manchester and Brigham Young University. Her work is focused on the interdisciplinary study of art, scripture, lay piety, Christian patronage, and patristic texts. Her work is focused on the interdisciplinary study of art, scripture, lay piety, Christian patronage, and patristic texts. More specifically, her research centers on images of women in early Christian contexts. She’s currently researching the typologies of Susanna and Wisdom on sarcophagi and within funerary contexts.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
It goes without saying that the Bible was created in a fundamentally patriarchal society. But a close analysis still staggers the mind: One study argues that the voices of women only make up about one percent of all the words in the Bible! If we want to learn more about women in the ancient world, we’ll need more than the biblical text. We’ll need to look at other texts and ancient artifacts—burial boxes, jewelry, art.
Catherine Taylor joins us in this episode—she’s the Hugh Nibley Postdoctoral Fellow here at the Maxwell Institute, and she specializes in late antique Christian art history and iconography. Her research shows there is much more we can learn about women of the ancient world. We’re talking about a book she wrote on Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the surprising stories Christians have told about her in word and artifact.
Questions and comments about this and other episodes can be sent to email@example.com.
HODGES: Catherine Taylor, welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
TAYLOR: Thank you, I’m very pleased to be here.
HODGES: We’ve known each other for a long time now. You’ve been here at the Institute how long?
TAYLOR: I first did a fellowship with the Institute in 2017, kind of as an honorary fellowship. And now I am the Nibley Post-Doctoral Fellow and I started that assignment in September of 2018.
HODGES: And today, we’re sitting down to talk about a book that you published called, Late Antique Images of the Virgin Enunciate Spinning: Allotting the Scarlet and the Purple. And that title will become more clear as we go along.
But let’s start with an apocryphal book. This is a book that was written by early Christians that didn’t end up in the Bible, The Protoevangelium of James. And this is a book that offers more intricate detail about Mary, the mother of Jesus. So, let’s start there and talk a little bit about this record.
TAYLOR: The Protoevangelium is a very important, influential text. It’s one of many apocryphal gospels and it’s an elaboration on the canonical infancy gospel narratives that we might be more familiar with, particularly in the gospel of the Matthew, in the gospel of Luke. It was a popular apocryphal text. There are approximately one hundred different manuscript copies of the Protoevangelium. They were executed in a number of different languages—Greek, Syriac, Armenian, to name a few.
HODGES: So, if those manuscripts lasted, it suggests that there were probably a lot of them. If we have such a large collection, is that—?
TAYLOR: Yes, correct. Most scholars would agree that the bulk of the text was written in the second half of the second century. The earliest manuscript that we have with the Protoevangelium is third century. And it really lays out for us, I think, some important bridge elements in the gospel narratives that early Christians were very curious about.
HODGES: Let’s read it. Let’s read what the text actually says. Why don’t you—this is in the beginning of your book here in the introduction. I’ll have you read this and then we’ll talk a bit about why it didn’t end up in the Bible.
TAYLOR: Alright, so this is from chapter ten and part of chapter eleven. This is referencing, specifically, the Annunciation, or the moment in which the angel Gabriel will appear to Mary and announce to her that she is to be the mother of God:
“Now, there was a council of priests who resolved, ‘Let us make a veil for the temple of the Lord.’ And the priest said, ‘Call unto me, pure virgins of the tribe of David.’
Then they brought them into the temple of the Lord and the priest said, ‘Cast me lots, which of you should weave the gold and the amient and the fine linen, the silk and the hyacinth blue, the scarlet and the true purple.’
And to Mary fell the lot of the pure purple and the scarlet, and she took them and went unto her house and Mary took the scarlet and spun it. And she took a pitcher and went forth to draw water and behold, a voice said, ‘Hail, thou art highly favored, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.’
And she looked around on the right and on the left, to see whence this voice came. And trembling she went to her house and put down the pitcher and took the purple and sat down upon her seat and drew out the thread.
And behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before her, saying, ‘Fear not, Mary. For thou hast found grace before the Lord of all things and thou shalt conceive of his word.’”
HODGES: So we get a lot more detail here than we do in the canonized gospel narratives. Why was this writing left out? You talked about it being a popular text. I know we probably don’t have a record of someone explaining exactly why, but what do historians think about it?
TAYLOR: There are a couple of thoughts on this. One idea is that the earliest Christians were looking for those additional details that they were not finding in the story according to Luke, in the infancy narrative. And so they wanted some of these details and they were very much particularly interested in the account of Mary and where she came from and the account of her life. There are a lot of everyday kinds of details that help fill the gaps, so to speak, within these gospel narratives found here.
Another idea is that there are some apologetic elements that show up here. So, the Protoevangelium is meant to harmonize the accounts in Matthew and Luke, and also to theologically defend Mary’s virginity. To point out that she was ever-virgin and was conceived, even, as a virginal birth. Her mother, Anna, also delivered Mary as part of a virginal birth.
HODGES: That’s what’s known as the “Immaculate Conception,” right?
HODGES: She was conceived outside of normal sexual reproduction—
TAYLOR: Yes. So in a lot of ways, what Mary spinning here—the accomplishment that this little detail gives us—is that we are using a spindle and distaff—the symbols of quintessential virtue writ large within the ancient world. And so we get a stabilized relationship to Mary and her virginity in an account that, typically, could be criticized for sexual impropriety. And the earliest Christians wanted to push away from that.
To use these symbols to note her virtue also accomplished legitimizing her figure within a long history of legendary and even mythic women within the ancient Mediterranean world in order to establish that virtue.
But there were also some unintended consequences from those symbols, because they were always incorporated into accounts of women who were matrons, women who were mothers, and there were elements of fertility and parturition or childbirth. And also the extent of one’s life—for example, when we talk about the fates, the three fates as those who spin out the allotment of one’s life, determine its length—
HODGES: They’re in Hercules, people might have seen the Disney film—
TAYLOR: Yes, exactly! And then cut it off at the end.
HODGES: But, talk about the technology a little bit more. When you talk about a spindle and a distaff, what exactly is this technology?
TAYLOR: A spindle and a distaff are two separate tools. A distaff is a long rod or a pole unto which the fibers—unspun fibers, whether they be, you know, wool, cotton, flax for spinning linen thread—they would’ve been bundled in roves and wrapped around the distaff. And then as the thread starts to come together, it would be hooked onto a spindle, and a drop spindle would literally be spun around by a hand motion in order to create the right spin on the roves to create thread.
HODGES: Okay. And what’s the significance then of having Mary—you’ve talked about this a little bit—to have her doing the veil for the temple and the colors that were selected. What’s the symbolism there? What were people seeing in that story?
TAYLOR: Mary is chosen as one of the temple virgins to receive this specific allotment—the scarlet and the purple. And we find in the situation of the Annunciation a situation where a man, a stranger that Mary doesn’t know, is approaching her and telling her that she’s going to conceive. So this is kind of a danger zone, as it were.
And Mary, having the spindle and the distaff in her hand, really sets her apart in a way that would’ve been instantly and iconically recognized as a position of power, of household authority, of capable womanhood—if you look back to, for example, the Proverbs 31 account of the capable or virtuous woman, beyond just intimating chastity, but a woman who is fully capable and situated within a household.
And for Mary, of the household of David, in the temple, here she is, untarnished in that confrontation, in that conversation, that she has with Gabriel.
HODGES: How does that stack up to the stereotypical view of Mary of being a little peasant girl from Nazareth? This is a different image of Mary that is more powerful and industrious.
TAYLOR: That’s right. And the Protoevangelium really points to that. Mary is industrious, and even later when she marries Joseph—he’s a carpenter who has work, he builds houses. This doesn’t really stack up at all to this lowly peasant girl, you know? And even when Mary in the Magnificat says, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord,” I don’t think we need to read into that that she was poor. Her lowly estate is not necessarily connected to her physical or social position.
As a matter of fact, I think within the lineage of David in this royal household, at least within this text, we find that she is “noted” amongst the Israelites, and I don’t think that we would find her, you know, at the stream collecting water with mud on her face. And I believe that she is a figure that we can look up to as an exemplar of fully capable womanhood within a household that is also abundant and able to provide, not only for itself, but for those who look to it in very much a kind of patron/client kind of relationship common within the ancient Mediterranean world.
HODGES: Speaking of the ancient Mediterranean world, you mentioned already that some of this imagery was not original to Christianity. Christians didn’t create their faith from whole cloth, and I did intend that pun as we’re talking about spinning. It’s obvious that they didn’t do that, especially because they used the Hebrew scriptures, and Christianity grew out of Judaism. But also, Christianity was influence by Pagan precedence, as you talk about in this book. It was established in the Roman world.
So your first chapter traces some of these earlier influences that Christianity adopted, or that informed Christianity. Let’s look at a few examples of these. So, the basic question is, what made a good woman in the ancient world? What was the place of women here?
TAYLOR: Within the ancient world, and particularly within the Roman world, there were mores and virtues and values that were meant to be demonstrated in a public way. Now, we recognize that these were ideals in the past, and actually they also recognized that the different virtues of social and civic life were meant to be idealistic. Obviously, people varied in the way that they could accomplish those ideals.
HODGES: We see this today, right? With women who are career women, women who stay at home, or like the 1950’s housewife where she always had her clothing pressed and her kids were all clean and she had dinner on the table when the husband came home. Like, these are ways that women are supposed to be “good women.” There are women who didn’t fit up to that, and in the ancient world there were some different expectations.
TAYLOR: Exactly. And even in Rome today, if you take a short walk from the Colosseum, you can walk over to the Forum Transitorium in Rome and there’s a whole frieze on this temple that demonstrate two Roman women—the kinds of things that good Roman women did. And so, it was—
HODGES: Like a billboard? [laughs]
TAYLOR: Yeah, exactly! And in this frieze is the goddess Minerva teaching women and young girls how to spin, how to weave cloth, and—
HODGES: Because that was like a fundamental symbol—
TAYLOR: It’s a fundamental action. It’s part of domestic life, but it was also symbolic.
And so, not only in everyday life do you find that symbol resonating, but you also find it in everything from ancient myth to legend, to literature. Homer, for example, we find the women of the Iliad and The Odyssey as women who both spin and weave. And there’s a difference between those two actions.
HODGES: Tell me about the difference.
TAYLOR: Spinning is the creation of the thread, and weaving is taking that thread and putting into a warp and a weft and creating the cloth.
HODGES: The textile, yes, okay.
TAYLOR: Yes, the textile itself. And we find that women who live in a kind of stabilized status are those who can take up the spindle and distaff. Whereas those who are in a state of turmoil are those who weave.
For example, Penelope, when Odysseus is gone, she is weaving the shroud for Laertes. When Odysseus returns—
HODGES: And that’s her dad who’s—
TAYLOR: Her father-in-law.
HODGES: It’s kind of a burial shroud, is that right?
TAYLOR: Father or father-in-law, right? It’s a burial shroud, yes. And yet, when Odysseus returns, she takes up the spindle again and leaves her weaving aside. It’s a really important differentiation.
HODGES: So, Christians came out of Pagan culture and Jewish culture, and there are parallels in some of the stories that we find in the gospels and in ancient literature. In your book, you talk about, for example, the parallel between Thetis and Achilles and Mary and Jesus. Unpack that a little bit. That’s a really interesting parallel.
TAYLOR: So, Thetis is the mother of Achilles and at Achilles birth, there are present the Three Fates. So, we have the Moirai who are present, who are going to be the determiners of Achilles birth. And we know, of course, that there’s an ancient prophecy that Achilles could be killed. And so, there’s that vulnerable spot on his heel where is mother holds him and dips him into the River Styx. So, he’s part human but also part god, and of course this is going to be conflated with Mary and Jesus. With this, kind of, at the birth of Jesus we know that Mary also understands that in the future, a sword will pierce her heart. That there will be an event where Jesus is vulnerable and is killed.
HODGES: So, the story of a god-like person, or a god and human person being born into the world and being capable of miraculous feats and these types of things, wasn’t unique to the story of Jesus. People in the ancient world would’ve also recognized parallels in other types of stories.
TAYLOR: They would have, absolutely. Even in the story of Isis and Horace and Osiris. There’s a lot of parallels through multiple myths and legends where we can kind of see these elements show up.
HODGES: And there’s Livia Drusilla weaving the toga of Caesar too. I liked that story.
TAYLOR: Livia is the wife of Augustus. And Augustus puts into place laws about marriage and house-holding. And one of the things that I just find so funny is that Livia, who is this empress queen—whether or not she actually did ever take up the spindle and distaff to create this homespun wool toga for Augustus, whether she did this or not is irrelevant. The fact is that she wanted to be seen as the woman who had this virtue par excellence and she demonstrated it as an exemplar to the Roman world.
HODGES: How did that tie into Christianity? What was the parallel?
TAYLOR: The parallel is that women of all status were able to take up this symbol. So, it elevates the symbol of the spindle and distaff for the empress here and it’s an exemplary symbol for the women throughout the Empire. But also, we find that same kind of elevation with Mary. If Mary, the mother of God, also takes up this quotidian household domestic task, it also elevates the task and I think it also elevates female Christian believers who also take up this task.
HODGES: So, you have Mary taking up this similar task that the wife of Caesar himself was doing. So, it’s not just—We think of domestic labor as being sort of—
TAYLOR: Servile or, you know, lowly, you know, in the back room of the household. Done by servants.
HODGES: And here we see powerful women doing it instead.
HODGES: Okay. What do you make of the fact that Christians were using Jewish and Pagan imagery? That the stories sometimes paralleled each other? This is kind of a question about the nature of religion itself and Christianity and how it was made. Because some people would say, “Oh, it looks like Christians were just taking other stories and making things up with them.” You’re a believer. How do you look at that?
TAYLOR: I think a lot of times, the early Christians were taking familiar ideas and stories and tropes, and they were recognizing them in their own Christian story. This isn’t something new and it didn’t just come from the Pagan world. As a matter of fact, the earliest Christians often conflated Old and New Testament stories in order to legitimize themselves as a people who were following after Christ Jesus, who was the fulfillment of all of these Old Testament, Messianic prophecies, et cetera.
It’s kind of comforting to me, actually, to think of the wide iconographic and literary and symbolic tropes that were available to a lot of people. I would think that this may have even helped with conversion. You know, where people could recognize familiar symbolism in literature, in stories, and myth. But then to find it actualized in the very body of Jesus. I think that would have been very exciting. It’s a very transitional time period, this late ancient world. And for me, I think it’s comforting to know that my brothers and sisters throughout time and also throughout different world views, could recognize some of these resonances.
HODGES: It suggests that religion isn’t just dropped from the sky. Like, it’s this brand-new thing that doesn’t have any connection to anything else. It’s almost like Christ himself was born into a human body. Religion—the truth—is also born into human understanding and human forms and human stories. And in that way, I think, the Christian faith is similar to the birth of Christ Himself. This idea that something from Heaven comes and gets clothes in earthly vestments, I guess so to speak.
There’s a really cool quote that you have in here from St. Augustine, because the early church fathers were aware of some of these parallels and were very familiar with Pagan learning and all of this. And Augustine is saying that, “Just like the branches of heathen learning have not only faults and superstitious fancies, they also contain liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of truth. They have some most excellent precepts of morality and some truths in regard, even, to the worship of the one God are found among them.”
So, he found some things to admire about Pagan learning, or what he called “heathen learning.” But not all Christians saw it the same way. Some were much more interested in keeping those completely separate. What’s an example of that?
TAYLOR: Well, there are going to be different councils, even church councils, that come up arguing over the nature of Christ. Mary is going to be a big part of that. And you’ll find that there will be early church fathers that are very much interested in a particular orthodox kind of view. And yet, we have to also acknowledge that there are other Christianities that might take a different angle and are finding truth in things from the past and interpreting them differently.
There’s a lot of contention in the early church over some of these issues. I think it’s really lovely that Augustine, for example, but also others, are looking to the past and finding these moments of truth, these instances of truth, and bringing them forward, capitalizing on them, as it were.
HODGES: I mean, for Latter-day Saint listeners obviously, the parallel there was similar to what Joseph Smith was doing in drawing things from his environment. And for him, the process of translation and revelation was sort piecing together truths. And he would tell Latter-day Saints, “Our job is to go out and find all these things and bring everything in.” That’s part of what the Restoration is, so—
HODGES: Yes, so, Latter-day Saints have this similar view of how revelation and religion works. We’re talking today with Catherine Taylor. She’s the Hugh Nibley Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute here at Brigham Young University. We’re talking about her book, Late Antique Images of the Virgin Annunciate Spinning.
So Late Antique Images of the Virgin Annunciate Spinning is referencing the fact that you’re an art historian, and you’re looking at all of these different images of Mary when the angel comes to her and tells her that she’s going to be the mother of God. A lot of these images depict her spinning, creating thread. So let’s go back to that Annunciation, that’s what Christians have called it through the ages.
How does the New Testament story compare—or, the accounts in the New Testament compare to what we heard in the beginning from the Protoevangelium of James? What are the basic facts? Because you said the Protoevangelium kind of was weaving the New Testament stories together. So, what’s the New Testament story showing us about Mary that the Protoevangelium weaves together?
TAYLOR: The New Testament is not always giving us everything that we want to know about Mary, actually.
One of my favorite parts of the infancy gospel account is, of course, the Magnificat. This is where from Mary’s own mouth, she’s speaking of her position, she’s speaking of her household, and she is accepting and consenting to this act of—
HODGES: Remind me, is this in Luke?
TAYLOR: Yes, it is in Luke. The Magnificat occurs just after the initial visitation moment where she goes to visit Elizabeth. And of course, the apocryphal account is going to give us Mary’s whole backstory. So, how she was raised in the temple, how she comes to be one of the virgins chosen to spin the material for the veil of the temple—
HODGES: Which could be a symbol of Christ too, right?
HODGES: Like, she’s weaving this veil between us and God, sort of like a veil like, her body’s going to weave together Jesus’s body so to speak.
TAYLOR: Yes. And the early church fathers—one in particular, Proclus of Constantinople—picks up on this imagery and talks about her womb as a loom and weaving the tunic without seam. And so, we get this image—
HODGES: This precious thing, yeah.
TAYLOR: That’s right. The very body of Jesus.
HODGES: Let’s return now back to the Annunciation as Christians have called it throughout the ages. How does the New Testament story compare to the Protoevangelium story of James? What details do we get in the New Testament about Mary that the Protoevangelium adds to?
HODGES: The New Testament accounts really differ. The gospel of Matthew is going to start out by talking about the lineage of Jesus, in which Mary is part of that. But we really do turn to the gospel of Luke to get the infancy narrative in its detail.
HODGES: It’s our very typical Christmas story, right?
TAYLOR: That’s right, it’s the typical Christmas story where Mary and Joseph are called to pay the tax and they go to—
HODGES: There’s a donkey involved. [laughs]
TAYLOR: There’s a donkey involved. We hear the story, of course, of the Annunciation prior to that. Sorry, we’re out of order here a little.
HODGES: And that’s in Luke as well though?
HODGES: So, Luke is telling us Gabriel comes to her—
TAYLOR: Luke is telling us, yes, the Annunciation story. We learn of the hesitation of Joseph; we learn about Joseph’s dream, that he is to marry Mary, and then we find that Mary goes out to stay with her cousin Elizabeth. We hear the story of John leaping in Elizabeth’s womb, and then we get that wonderful account of the Magnificat where Mary talks about herself in relationship to God and to Israel. Where she is literally at this most pivotal point for the salvation of Israel. God has beheld her as the handmaid of the Lord and she is now going to be the mother of Jesus. And of course, then we move on into the Nativity account, et cetera.
HODGES: And that’s probably the longest moment of a woman speaking in a New Testament account, is that right?
TAYLOR: Yes, and it reflects, you know, the song of Hannah from Samuel in the Hebrew Bible and her own song in the temple.
HODGES: Because she had a miraculous birth. She was barren and then conceived, right? So—
TAYLOR: Yes. And it really kind of turns on its head all our expectations, that Christ would be born of Mary into this household. It really contrasts and compares this royal Davidic line with his priestly assignment here on earth.
HODGES: One of the things you point out as well is that even though Mary was this prominent figure in the household of David in all this, but this Annunciation story really captured the attentions of all early Christians. And it served as a model for the everyday spiritual lives of all kinds of believers, especially women, all over the economic spectrum. How did that work?
TAYLOR: Within early Christianity, I think it works because it really pushes aside the social boundaries that women would’ve been subject to. This was a task that either practically, or even idealistically, could have been taken up by women. And to associate that with Mary, the mother of God, it puts women in a place where they could also be active participants within Christianity. It’s not, according to early Patristic fathers, the position of Eve where she is the, you know, evil, venial temptress. As a matter of fact, Mary is kind of a foil to that. She is the one who is now going to be the flesh and blood that will incarnate Christ Jesus, right?
HODGES: So this gave women who had known about Eve and sort of seen her as a problem, gave them a new woman that they could look to that wasn’t a problem. And in fact, in her very acts, kind of sanctified regular, everyday work almost, is what it seems like.
TAYLOR: Yeah. Yes. I think that’s exactly what they would have seen. And this is before, you know, we turn Mary into kind of a, pedestalized queen of Heaven, almost semi-divine in her own nature.
HODGES: Yes, she’s a businesswoman. She’s a worker. She’s like a, head of her home, getting it done—
TAYLOR: Head of her household, that’s right. And capable in all of those things.
HODGES: This chapter also includes some lovely physical objects. And you’re an art historian so you’re going to be looking throughout the book at artifacts—these pieces of history that existed beyond the written word. So let’s talk about a few examples and they’ll help people understand some of the conclusions that you reach about early Christian women.
So the oldest known artifact of the Annunciation in Egypt is this wooden bass relief from the 4th century. Christianity has spread to Egypt now. So, tell us what a bas-relief is and tell us about this object. It’s really beautiful, and we’ll have images of this in the show notes on the blog, you can see these.
TAYLOR: There’s this very small, fig wood bas-relief figure that we find. It’s actually in the Louvre these days. But it comes out of Egypt. And the bas-relief—
HODGES: Have you seen it, yourself? Sorry to interrupt—
TAYLOR: I have, yes. Yeah, absolutely. It’s in the cabinet near some Coptic textiles, and I think that’s such a great juxtaposition to have the textiles next to this image of Mary.
So bas-relief is a carved, flattened piece of stone or wood that then you carve a kind of three dimensional, low-relief figure so that it gives that three dimensional effect. And that’s what we have here.
HODGES: Where would they put it? Where would these things appear? Because it kind of looks like it’s been broken off of something bigger.
TAYLOR: It has. And scholars—particularly those at the Louvres, the conservators there—point to this as maybe fitting right into a panel. So it was part of a larger narrative piece, and on the edge of this wooden sculpture you find that it almost could fit into a channel. So could have been part of a screen—
HODGES: The front of a church or something?
TAYLOR: Yeah, some suggest it may have had an ecclesiastical setting, but we really honestly don’t know. It could have in a number of different settings.
And here we have Mary and she’s seated on this kind of rudimentary stool with a back to it. Her body takes this kind of unusual twist as she’s looking out at us, the viewer. She’s wearing a palla and stola here, she’s wearing kind of a traditional dress with these purple lines that may—
HODGES: Is that like a female version of toga? Is that what it is?
TAYLOR: Yeah, kinda. Yes, exactly. And we see these purple lines that may indicate folds of her dress.
But most importantly, we have seated on her lap, we find the wool basket. And from the wool basket there’s a small little rove of wool that’s coming up. And her right hand is likely holding a distaff from which these roves would be wound and then spun. We also find this charming little detail, at the right-hand corner, of Gabriel’s foot. So, here he is in her space, but she’s elevated on the stool and she’s concerned with her task and she’s look out at us, the viewer!
HODGES: Yes. So looking at the photo of the artifact, how do scholars know for sure that it’s Mary?
TAYLOR: Scholars look at iconography, so the study of symbols. And here, because she has the wool basket and she’s spinning, and they’re correlating that with the text—texts known to artists and those who would be commissioning artwork at the time. We can identify that this is Mary.
Now, early church fathers use wool working iconography often in their rhetoric. I came across a really, kind of obscure fourth century churchman by the name of Potamius of Lisbon, who talks about spinning and its association with Christ, but also how women would recognize this symbolism. And he said—in a letter—he says, “We have already begun to discuss the indivisible garment. Let us weave our words. Words which women may also understand, since our words concern the kind of job to which they are assigned.” [laughter]
HODGES: “Let’s make it understandable to the ladies” is what he’s, sort of condescendingly, saying, yeah.
So there are texts that talk about Mary as someone who’s doing this kind of action, and then there are other artifacts as well.
Another one that you talk about in the book comes from the fifth or sixth century, it’s hard to nail down the exact date. It’s an ivory jar—a little box called a pyxis. What is this artifact?
TAYLOR: A pyxis is—It’s one of those objects that kind of crosses the threshold between the sacred and the profane. Because here we have the narrative elements of Mary’s life featuring the Annunciation here first that we’re looking at in the photo—
HODGES: It’s carved into the box. It’s really beautiful.
TAYLOR: Yes, and it’s an ivory box, which is a very precious object, right? But it’s also used in a utilitarian way. You would use pyxis jars to hold things like ointments or balms or even perfume, this kind of thing. So you get sacred iconography on a precious object that’s used in a utilitarian way.
HODGES: And what do we learn about Mary from this particular pyxis jar?
TAYLOR: The pyxis jar that is pictured here is from Berlin, from the Staatliche museum. And it features Mary seated on this low stool, there’s a curtain behind her, so we have kind of a domestic space, perhaps even the space of the temple. And Mary is in her body, in her figure here, is really the same size as the angel Gabriel. If she were to stand up, she would actually be taller; she’d be larger. So that gives us a kind of hierarchy to establish her by.
One of my favorite details on this pyxis is that there is a specific kind of spindle that’s set into this bowl, indicating that the fiber that she’s spinning is likely really delicate. And so, we don’t want the spindle whirling all over the place and even Mary’s right arm is bared, indicating that the artist has paid attention to the real act of spinning in a domestic kind of situation. So we get those real life details on this really beautiful little ivory jar.
HODGES: And what would early Christian women kind of take from this image? If they have this in their house, what would it remind them of? What would they think of when they look at this object?
TAYLOR: Certainly it would remind them of the importance and role of Mary in their belief. But I think it also would’ve reflected back into their own hearts; back into their own identity. Within the ancient world, the act of looking was an act in which you received the image into your very being. It’s almost a penetrative act in which these images would be written on the tablets of one’s mind. But I think here it’s also meant to be written into the fleshy tablets of the heart, right? To identify this common, ordinary task of spinning with the things that you did.
Their association with Mary would’ve also elevated their self-concept and I think it may have helped legitimized the role of women in, you know, ostensibly a “traditional” role here. But to emphasize the importance of that within Christianity in a world that was increasingly becoming more aesthetic, more monastic—at least in the accounts and texts we have that survive.
HODGES: So a woman could look at this jar and see an exemplar of femininity and motherhood and industry and strength, and these are qualities of Mary that the official church increasingly came to discourage, as your book points out. And this is kind of a controversial part of the book, because some Christian believers to this day are really tied to the aesthetic idea of Mary—this Mary that is very disconnected from the everyday concerns and dirt of everyday life.
TAYLOR: Yes, I certainly do not push back too hard on the exemplary notions of aestheticism, except to say that I think there were also other forms of sanctity and belief that are at play here. There were controversies as early as the late fourth century over marriage and its merits. Potamius and a then Jerome are going to argue in many ways over other churchmen, like Helvitius for example, who support marriage as a way for Christians to be not only believers, but legitimate players within the Christian oeuvre.
HODGES: Arguing that it didn’t make you a lesser Christian to be married?
HODGES: Because others were saying that celibacy was a higher order, something that the Christians should seek to achieve instead of marriage.
TAYLOR: And in many ways, one of my advisers while I was working on my PhD, Dr. Kate Cooper, talks about how the pushback against marriage in many ways was a powerplay for the Church. Instead of the traditional household structure of patron and client, and properties being passed through familial lines, you know, aestheticism changes some of those lines so that inheritances and properties went to the Church. And so, you can understand that there are some competing agendas, not only theologically, but also socially and politically, that play into some of these arguments.
HODGES: So ultimately, these images of Mary spinning—for everyday Christians—signaled industry, creativity, being a provider, also salvation and Mary’s role in bringing Christ into the world. And part of the reason that Mary became so controversial is because there were debates over the exact nature of Christ—you mentioned this a little bit earlier where the question was, as Christ was more scrutinized, Mary was more scrutinized. Like, did her body itself create the body of Christ like a normal situation? There are even some that said that Christ kind of made his own body in her womb, is that right?
TAYLOR: Yes. There are accounts that indicate that. That she is just a vessel; she is the womb, but Christ is actually doing the work, or God is doing the work, weaving His own body. Which, you know, I think in some ways is problematic for women. [laughs]
TAYLOR: In a lot of ways! The controversies are definitely present in some of the earliest Church councils—the council at Ephesus, the council at Chalcedon, for example—in which there are very hot debates over not only the nature of Christ as a divine Being, but to what extend was he also human? And Mary of course is going to be a necessary component there. If she is also human, then what does that make Christ?
And so, they came up with a title, a title that had an earlier precedent, but a title specifically for Mary, of Theotokos, “God-bearer.” The mother of God. And this is going to start to shift the understanding of who Mary is, because once she is the God-bearer, then also we can look into texts like the Protoevangelium of James, for example, to emphasize her role in the salvific nature of Christ. And it kind of puts her outside of the ordinary realm of women.
HODGES: In some ways makes her less relatable to everyday Christians.
TAYLOR: Yes, it does make her less relatable. Absolutely.
HODGES: Your next chapter in the book contains even more artifacts that depict Mary, and these are kind of coming at the time that ideas and views of Mary are shifting amongst Church hierarchy and also amongst believers.
For example, these gold wedding rings. There are gold wedding rings with Mary and Gabriel. Let’s look at this one.
TAYLOR: In the British museum is a gold ring, a marriage ring, that features an Annunciation scene right on the bezel, so on the top kind of platform. We see Mary seated on a high-backed chair and then we also see Gabriel with his wing. And it’s very schematic and it’s very—It’s kind of rudimentary.
But you can image looking at this ring and the tiny scratches in it and the worn surface of it, that this is something that a woman would have worn. It was valued, not just because it was out of gold, but because of the image on it. And also the salutation, “Hail! Thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among women.”
HODGES: Yeah, that’s engraved around the band, right?
TAYLOR: Yes! So, to have this salutation that is associated with Mary on a marriage ring for a woman and this symbol here with her wool basket on her lap, featuring the characteristics of industry, productivity, fertility—even, I would argue, an apotropaic image. An image that was meant to be protective in a way, because, you know, women during this time period—and men as well—often used jewelry and other objects like this in a superstitious kind of way, to allow for protection. And here, you know, it says, “Blessed are thou”—
HODGES: Like, a home remedy type of a thing, right? Like, if wear this, it’s going to increase the odds that I get pregnant or something, even, right?
TAYLOR: Right, yes. There are also other marriage rings that feature the Annunciation, and it would really be impossible to say how many, you know, ultimately, we have. But the fact that several remain, out of the many that were likely produced is really quite stunning to me.
I don’t think we should dismiss them or their iconography, because the iconography is also different on other rings. In my initial investigation of objects, Annunciation imagery accounts for about eight to ten percent of what is appearing on these marriage rings. I think, in some ways, they were preserved even for a wise purpose.
HODGES: And this is where speculation enters in too, though. The fact that these were preserved allows scholars like you and believers today to reflect on what that meant for early Christians—I think that’s what you meant by a “wise purpose.” But it’s also sort of an incomplete record. And how does a scholar like you find these items? I think the one marriage ring, you said, hadn’t really been looked at before. So, how are you finding these objects?
TAYLOR: There are a couple of ways that I’ve found them. Of course, I have relied on a wonderful resource which is the Index of Christian Art, originally compiled at Princeton University. There’s also a copy—a hard copy—on the index at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.
HODGES: Basically, like a catalog? Like, “Here’s all the artifacts we know about.”
TAYLOR: Yes. As a grad student, I went to the index at Princeton and literally thumbed through these little card catalog file cards and then looked up all of the images. That’s one way.
Today, there’s a lot of digitization that has occurred. I also do rely on art catalogs, exhibition catalogs. But sometimes—especially if there are lesser-known objects—I find that working with curators and keepers of collections at museums has been really useful.
HODGES: So as you’re looking at the Index and you’re hearing from other scholars and you’re getting all of these artifacts to examine, there are some other ones that cause controversy for the Church. There are these pendants and necklaces and armbands, and there was a question about whether they were feeding into superstition.
In other words, this is a question about popular religion verses what the institutionalized Christian church at the time wanted to be happening. So you had regular believers who thought, “If I wear this pendant, it will increase my chances to get married or my changes to bear children or protect my health.” And the Church was kind of saying no to that kind of stuff.
TAYLOR: Yes, they do push back. But we have to understand that this really is at such a time of transition, and honestly, I think you could say this was a world of magic. This was a world of superstition and—
HODGES: You could even say, like the religious terms would be like, “blessedness” or like, “this thing could bless you,” “these relics can—”
TAYLOR: Yes. There’s a word for it, it’s called “eulogia.” These are objects that, in some way, have a kind of protective or healing power. This is a common belief. It starts, actually, with the cult of the Saints and the cult of the Martyrs—
HODGES: And that’s cult in the scholarly sense in the “attention to those things”—not “cult” like a brainwashing type of a thing. But, the cult of the Saints is like this—
TAYLOR:—followers after different Saints. And we have to remember that this is a very dangerous time to live. It’s a dangerous time to give birth; it’s a dangerous time to try and raise children from infancy into adulthood. You know, infant mortality rates are exceptionally high. It’s difficult in the health life of women and children, particularly surrounding these events. You would call upon everything within your understanding in order to have success in these areas. I think we should not fault early believers for this kind of action.
HODGES: And I think some people today see connections there. I mean, we have, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we have oil that is put on someone’s head to give them a blessing and things like that. I think it’s also interesting to think about the question of authority—these were women and worshipers who were kind of taking it upon themselves to find blessings from God. I think we see that today with some of the rise in home remedies and that kind of thing.
TAYLOR: There are these wonderful fertility arm bands that exist. There’s one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that I love to look at. And you can just imagine a woman wearing this in order to perhaps evoke successful partition or childbirth, this kind of thing. But I think it doesn’t obscure the fact that these women are acting in faith.
HODGES: Another example of people acting in faith with physical artifacts comes in the next chapter, in chapter four, with these stunning little tokens that you have, they look like little clay buttons, they have Mary on them and historians talk about how these were used with pilgrimages—this is where believers would go on long journeys to sacred places in order to seek blessings or to be held or to receive spiritual inspiration or whatever, these pilgrimages, and they would come away with these little tokens. Talk about some of these tokens that depict Mary.
TAYLOR: There’s a wonderful clay token from Edfu, Egypt in the British Museum and I’ve actually held this token in my hand. And it’s a small, you’re right, kind of button-like shape with an image that’s been impressed into this clay. The image on this token is the Annunciation, so we again have Mary, but also in this image with a very large wool basket in the center, and then Gabriel on the right.
Pilgrimage for early Christians could have been undertaken for any number of reasons. For healing, acts of contrition, for demonstrating their faith, and there were lots of pilgrimage routes that start popping up all over Europe. When you went to a site that was holy, it was important to also take away something. Not just that the image would be efficacious, but the thing itself. And I just find that this clay token which, on the back of it, actually has these little poke-holes. I’m not sure if the mud that’s been inserted into these poke-holes is from a holy site or not,. So when you would go to a holy site and you had this souvenir to take away, it was more than a souvenir. It was an object and an image that was meant to be efficacious in your own life.
HODGES: Like it carried some power, like if someone went to Jerusalem today and took home a little jar of sand from the shore of the Dead Sea or something.
TAYLOR: Right. It wasn’t something to just go and show your friends, but it was part of one’s belief in the intersession of saints, or even of Mary on your behalf and for your well-being.
HODGES: That’s Catherine Taylor. We’re talking to her today about the book Late Antique Images of the Virgin Annunciate Spinning. And so far, we’ve heard about images of the Annuciate Spinning on a bas-relief, carved out of wood. We’ve heard about these clay tokens from pilgrimages. We’ve heard about pyxis jars made of ivory where Mary is carved onto them. There are rings with Mary engraved on them and a lot of these depict Mary spinning, and was this powerful symbol for women.
Your chapter five gets into burial sites, which offer historians some of the most preserved materials—some of the best materials that historians can investigate. And you seem particularly fascinated by these burial clothes and objects. What’s your interest there?
TAYLOR: The realm of the dead for the early Christians may be the most liminal space that they had access to. When you buried a loved one, or even when you anticipated your own death, not unlike today, you might take some care and concern over the kinds of objects that would be associated with your death and burial.
The fact that we have, for example, textiles that were buried with individuals that depict the Annunciation—I find that really interesting. It asks of the viewer—and now it asks of us as viewers now, who were probably never meant to see these objects—why choose these images? Why choose these objects? And I think these were deliberate choices. So, whether they were ever meant to be seen again or not, we can see how early Christians integrated these salvific images into their own burial goods—the things that went with them from this life into the next.
HODGES: And some of these textiles that you’ve looked at include images of Mary printed on them—the Annunciation and Mary Spinning as well.
TAYLOR: There’s a wonderful resist dye linen piece that’s in the Victorian Albert museum and I love it because we can clearly see the Annunciation, but it’s very schematic. It speaks to the common, ordinary person who is recreating images that they found precious on even the most simple of materials.
HODGES: Let’s talk about one more particular artifact that you look at in the book. This is the Pignatta Sarcophagus. This is basically a burial box, right, that’s carved all around the sides. Why don’t you describe that?
TAYLOR: A sarcophagus is a coffin. It is a tomb. And the word sarcophagus is made up of two words sarco and phagus, or flesh-eater. And so, yes, it is a large tomb that is carved on all four sides. The Pignatta Sarcophagus is, today, in Ravenna, Italy, in a loga that is just adjacent to the tomb of Dante. So when you’re in Ravenna next, make sure you pop next door to see this very large familial sarcophagus! Likely, more than one body was interred here.
The Pignatta Sarcophagus. Ravenna; 4th century AD.
On the short ends, the short ends are really fascinating to me, because on one end we have the Annunciation. We have Mary seated very regally with a very large wool basket and a rove of wool that extends up to her distaff. She’s approached by the angel Gabriel in the traditional iconographic fashion.
And then on the opposite end, we find what I have re-attributed to be the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene at Resurrection. We have these two very important moments. The moment of incarnation for Jesus, and then the moment in which he is reborn. And we find women as witnesses and participants in both of these events.
On the front and back, on the long sides of the sarcophagus, we find Christ enthroned. He’s flanked by Peter and Paul, and under his feet are a serpent and dragon and a lion. And so here we find an apocalyptic Christ.
And then on the back are these wonderful images of the heart and the doe—the male and female image of the deer, right?—who are drinking at this crater, vessel of water. And there’s a lot of Psalmic association with the heart and the doe—the believers who come to drink, who come to partake of this living water in Christ.
So we have the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus. We have his apocalyptic glory, and we also have the symbolic image of Jesus’s follower, who are here hoping for eternal life. They’re hoping for that same resurrection in Christ, carved on the very object that contains their bodies.
HODGES: It’s a remarkable box. People can see an image of the sarcophagus on our website. It’s really striking to see how Mary, the mother of Jesus, is situated on one of those sides as a prominent figure in the salvation narrative. And that speaks to the overall purpose of your book, which is to look at these images of Mary and what they can tell us about what early Christians thought about her and how she was part of the gospel story, part of the story of Christ.
So to sum it all up, your book is arguing that these visual representations of Mary provided social and spiritual models for Christian women—that women could look to these as exemplary. At the same time these artifacts were shaped by the social and spiritual lives of those Christian women. So the more they found spiritual fulfillment in everyday work like spinning, the more those things would appear on artifacts, and vice versa.
It kind of introduces a little bit of chicken and an egg problem and this question gets raised when people wonder, were these images of women sort of oppressive? Was there a sense in which they were prescribing very constricted roles for women? So I’m interested to hear your thoughts about the interaction of everyday women’s lives and the icons that showed up and this question of women’s proper roles in society.
TAYLOR: I think it would be really difficult, unless we have something explicit to say, you know, which came first? The image or the, you know, the idea and text around the image? And yes, I see how spinning and domestic work could be read as an oppressive or prescriptive kind of thing.
And yet, in the same breath I would remind all of us of the elevated task of spinning. That it wasn’t just a task taken up by the lowest of the low, but spinning, archetypally, is about creation. It’s about bigger ideas than just creating cloth. And I think that Mary gives us a good representation of the Christian conflation of this. I think the spindle elevates, not only the female role within the household, but throughout time as the fact that women are choosing this iconography also, I think, can subvert the idea that this is just an oppressive iconography.
Now, one might also argue, “Well, are men just influencing women to take up this domestic task?” But we have to remember that the spindle and distaff is the symbol par excellence of all virtue, of capableness, of being able to be part of the social and political construct of what the Roman world was about.
Even looking into the ancient Near East, we find goddesses that spin, who are connected the threads between life and death, who are responsible for burial garments that bind the body together and even help it resurrect. I think that there is a really beautiful spiritual, even liminal space for this act of spinning. Archetypally, symbolically, but also practically.
But I think that women were interested in the connection between the physical world and the spiritual world. I think these objects create, and provide, a kind of tether between the liminal world of the spirit and the practical world of everyday, ordinary household behavior.
One of my favorite pieces of evidence, mythologically speaking, that speaks to women taking up the spindle—not in an oppressive way, but in a way that is powerful—is the story of Kronos and Anache. Kronos, of course, is Father Time and Anache is his consort. And while Kronos controls time, Anache is in charge of spinning out of spindles all of the planets in their orbit. She takes on this role of creator and of one who governs space in partnership with time. I find that really, really stunning, when we think of divine beings being male and female and working in consort together. And I love that—the resonance of that old mythological tale speaking to women in the antique past.
HODGES: That’s Catherine Taylor. She’s the Hugh Nibley Post-Doctoral Fellow here at the Maxwell Institute and we’re talking about her book, Late Antique Images of the Virgin Annunciate Spinning. Let’s close by looking at the personal side of research. Your book is written mostly for specialists. So, people that are listening to this episode should know, if they’re interested in the book, it’s pretty technical. It’s got a lot of technical language; it’s very meticulous. What are some of the benefits and some of the drawbacks for writing a book for specialists?
TAYLOR: Although this subject matter might be a bit obscure for those outside of my discipline, I think that there are a lot of benefits to investing yourself into learning more about topics like this. I think that our investigation of the past—particularly our early Christian past—can help us uncover these little nuggets of gold. These beautiful, iconographic lessons that we can learn from our past.
And besides that, you know, as a believing Latter-day Saint woman, I consider myself a serious thinker. I want my scholarship to not only objectively investigate, but honestly focus on areas that I believe can help us uncover parts of our history, and to bring to life these women that have largely been forgotten and obscured. This is work that needs to be done.
HODGES: And near the end of the book, you point out that if people became more familiar with these images of Mary—as much as they’re familiar with this idea of Mary as the perfect, untouched aesthetic person out there—the more they might come to value their own role in God’s work, right? Like Mary becomes more exemplary for them in their own religious lives. So I wanted to ask you, how has this research informed your own personal devotion?
TAYLOR: One of the reasons that I love to investigate art and material culture is because I feel like God does speak to us in our own language and image. And iconography and symbolism is a language that I love and understand. This makes me very hopeful for thinking about our past—when I say “our” I mean the past of Christianity. I love that women are key players in earliest Christianity. They have a kind of authority, they have a voice, and an example that often must come through in the material culture in art, because texts have—in some instances—silenced those voices.
These women are important in salvific history and they are there. They are our gates to our own spiritual and liminal worlds, and they continue to inform my scholarship as I look at the kinds of things that are produced during this era and that would’ve resonated specifically for women viewers. I think the so-called “primitive church” has a lot to teach us and some threads of truth that are spun out even for us in our own day that help us weave together a beautiful tapestry of faith and connection with those in our past, and enliven and quicken our faith and belief today.
HODGES: Well thank you. What are you working on right now?
TAYLOR: Right now, I’m returning to a series of sarcophagi from the south of France, actually. A region that, in comparison to Rome, has a very large number of these early Christian sarcophagi with narratives that feature images of women. So, I’m working on those for a next book.
HODGES: Cool. We’ll look forward to it.
That’s Catherine Taylor. She’s the Hugh Nibley Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute here at Brigham Young University. And she specializes in late antique Christian art history and iconography. Her book is called Late Antique Images of the Virgin Annunciate Spinning. Catherine, thanks for talking to us today.
TAYLOR: Thank you for having me. It was a real pleasure.
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