Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Crosscurrents: Land, Labor, and the Port. Textile Society of America's 15th Biennial Symposium. Savannah. GA. October 19-23. 2016


Copyright 2016 by Gaby Greenlee


In this 18th century colonial Andean image painted in the former Inka capital of Cuzco, Peru, a wreath of flowers encircles a small female figure sitting upon a richly textured seat (Figure 1). She wears clothing that connotes distinction; her features and gestures are as delicate as her garments yet her eyes are fixed and discerning. Our eyes are drawn to her eyes. What does she see? What is her role? We also turn these questions on ourselves: what do we know about this figure that gives the painting meaning? We tend to interpret the work through her identity.

However, it is also relevant to examine the painting’s other elements, for example the rich textiles that hold place in the composition, or the spindle and distaff that indicate a valued material and an important task. Thus, instead of asking questions about the figure’s identity, I would like to think in terms of textiles and how they can expand our understanding of cultural values within the flux of the early modern period in colonial Peru.

This painting in the Collection of Carl and Marilynn Thoma shows the Virgin Mary as a child, spinning wool, with symbolism firmly embedded in a Christian story of faith tested and sacrifices made. The lily and the rose reflect her purity and sacrifice; the crown of twelve stars is a sign from the Book of Revelation,2 also serving as the halo of her sainthood; there, in the wood distaff, we see an intimation of the cross upon which her son Jesus will be crucified. Taking into account its Andean context, scholars have also commented that Mary codes references to the region’s Inka past: could her red bow allude to Inka royalty, who were seen as semi-divine and would have worn headdresses adorned with red wool fiber?3 Is she wearing a mantle type—a lliklla—that identified Andean women in both the pre-Conquest and colonial periods?4 Likewise, could the rays of light emanating from behind her head also point to the Sun God, Inti, whom the Inka revered?