Attended to by her parents, Anne and Joachim, a youthful Virgin Mary embroiders a decorative pattern with black thread on white fabric within the family’s home in Nazareth. Images depicting the early life of the Virgin, such as this painting, became popular in the early modern Catholic world and appear to have been particularly common in Spain and the Spanish Americas during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Such scenes were based on apocryphal texts and popular religious literature that recounted stories of the life of the Holy Family not included in the canonical Gospels. Stories and images of the Virgin and Christ’s childhoods became increasingly widespread after the Catholic-Reformation, when the Church encouraged a greater emphasis on the human experiences of Christ, the Virgin, and saints.
Paintings that portray the Virgin Mary engaged in sewing, weaving, or spinning probably played both a devotional and didactic role for viewers. On one hand, images of the Virgin engaged in textile work are connected to Christ’s Conception and Passion, as stories circulating as early as the second century associated Mary’s weaving of the Temple veil with the Annunciation and Crucifixion. However, documentation demonstrates that numerous paintings of the same or similar subject were owned by women in private homes and convents, suggesting a connection to the real-life production of textiles by women. In early modern Europe and the Spanish world, conduct manuals and other moralizing texts promoted textile work as an especially appropriate activity for girls and women within the domestic sphere. Instruction in sewing and embroidery was considered an essential element of all female education. Thus, paintings like this one that portray the Virgin embroidering highlight Mary’s virtuousness and feminine nature, and may have acted as visual models of proper behavior and work for young girls and women.
This painting was likely made in the late 1600s or 1700s in Spanish South America, in the region that now encompasses much of present-day Bolivia sometimes referred to as Alto (or Upper) Peru. Given the substantial size of this painting it is possible that it formed part of a larger series on the life of the Virgin in a convent or church. The composition appears to have been inspired by several prints from two separate series of engravings on the infancy of Christ and the life of the Virgin by the prolific Flemish engraver Hieronymus Wierix. However, the unknown artist did not merely copy any single print, but rather combined different passages from multiple engravings in order to create an entirely new composition.
--Sabena Kull, 2017-18 Mayer Fellow for Spanish Colonial Art