The Many Hands of Mary’s Maid

A story originally written by Dennis Aubrey, photographer and writer.
Dennis has been a photographer for more than twenty years.
He was founder and CEO of Altamira Group, the software company that created the Genuine Fractals software application, and spent many years developing software for scalable high-resolution digital imagery. His photographic work is characterized by his understanding of
the technical accomplishments of the medieval builders and a desire to
discover the spiritual underpinning of the structures.

Annunciation panel, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron). Photo by Dennis Aubrey

And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
~Luke 1:30-33.

On the far wall of the north transept of the Basilique Sainte Foy in Conques is one of the finest sculptures in this magnificent pilgrimage church, the triptych of the Annunciation. As those familiar with Christian theophany know, the Annunciation celebrates the appearance of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary to announce that she will conceive and give birth to Jesus, the Son of God. Fittingly, this event is considered the conception of Jesus and celebrated on March 25, nine months prior to his birth.

This sculpture is often attributed to the anonymous “Master of Conques,” whose work can be found throughout France and Spain, including Saint Isadore de León and the famed Puerta de las Platerias at Santiago. The ensemble features life-sized figures and is placed about 25 feet above the ground where it dominates the open end of the transept. Scholars think that the Annunciation was moved from the western portal at some time and replaced at this spot.

In this presentation, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, bowing slightly to her; his outstretched wings are crammed into the small space allotted to him. His hair is parted down the middle. The scroll that he is holding reads GABRIEL ANGELVS, “the Angel Gabriel.”

Mary is represented as a young woman, with her hand raised in front of her. I have read descriptions of this Mary as “serene”, but do not agree. It seems that she is afraid of the angel and the gesture is one of submission. This tallies with the “Fear not” admonition in Luke, and also the passage in the apocryphal Gospel of James (Chapter XI), “And she looked about right and left, to see whence this voice came. And becoming afraid, she went away to her home, and set down the waterpot; and taking the purple she sat on her seat and spun it. And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood before her, saying, Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found favour before the Lord, and thou shalt conceive from his word.

Further evidence that this depiction derives from the Gospel of James is found because Mary holds a distaff used for spinning, which was described only in that source. In this sculpture, she hand the distaff to a maid-servant, unseen from the front view.

From the side view we can clearly see the maidservant, but a mystery starts to present itself. The maid’s left hand holds a ball of wool attached to the distaff. The hand in the front view that takes the distaff also seems to represent her left hand. For this reason, residents of Conques describe the maid with three hands.

Hand detail, Annunciation panel, Basilique Sainte Foy, Conques (Aveyron). Photo by Dennis Aubrey.

However, with a bit more investigation, I think that the mystery is solved. In the highlighted region, we appear to have another hand reaching up for the distaff. Since this is the right hand, the position of the wrist indicates that the hand should take the distaff from below, not on top.

This is, of course, a bagatelle. This was not a scholarly dispute to be resolved, but merely a curiosity pointed out by the locals, probably to amuse themselves at our expense. We are satisfied that some unfortunate medieval sculptor didn’t make a gaffe and we can all sleep well knowing that this artist didn’t go down to the end of his days derided by his amused fellows.