Mourning Virgin is one of two wood figurines flanking either side of a doorway at the MET Cloisters museum (I.D. 12.200.2). At about 4 feet, 3 inches high, this is a relatively small art work. This sculpture is from the 13th Century and comes from Tyrol, Austria, by an unknown artist. Originally, this piece with it’s partner, Saint John the Evangelist, would have been on either side of a sculpture of Christ on the cross. At its current location, the sculpture’s back half cannot be seen, even though it is carved almost entirely in the round.
Mourning Virgin depicts the Virgin Mary mourning the death of her son, Jesus Christ, while on the cross. She is depicted wearing a belted red tunic and a light blue veil draped over her head and body. Both textiles worn display an ample amount of drape, carved into the wood, creating movement within the piece.
The artist chose to depict Mary wearing a simple tunic style garment with a veil to cover her head. This could be seen in one of two ways; a Medieval interpretation of what Mary would have worn based on Roman and Byzantine artifacts, or an amalgamation of historical garment and Medieval fashion. Many Medieval artists looked to Roman fresco and painting as reference for their work that contained biblical subject matter. At the time, it was common for artists to not only present their historical subjects in clothes based on ancient Roman artifacts, but to then create a hybrid with contemporary Medieval fashions. While it may look odd to modern eyes, the idea was to make it easier for the Medieval viewer to connect with the religious story by visually linking the viewer and the figures in the artwork by their clothing.
The garment Mary is shown wearing is more likely a Medieval interpretation of what would have been worn at the time of Jesus’s crucifixion. Jewish women in ancient Eastern Rome (of which Israel is a part) would have worn a simple tunic and a veil on the head, covering the wearers hair. The garment could have been belted and would have most likely contained some sort of ornament of bands or medallions, as surviving garments from the Roman period show. Indigo and madder dyes produced blue and red colors respectively and would have been available for dying linen or wool, which were common fibers in the Roman period, although the mixing of the two fibers would have been against Jewish law.
In Medieval fashion, tunics similar to Eastern Roman garments would have been worn by people of the lower classes. Images from this period, like the ones published in Fashion, show the lower class in plain tunics, belted at the waist, with no adornment. Like Mourning Virgin, a veil would be worn to cover the head at all times. In the Medieval era, dyes producing colors like brown, yellows, and blue would be common as they are all plant based dyes. However, red would have been too expensive and too difficult to dye for a simple peasant garment.
At first glance, it looks like the artist chose to depict Mary in traditional Medieval peasant clothes, emphasizing her common background and mortal poverty, something the average viewer at the time would be familiar with. However, the artist paints her tunic in red as to highlight her importance and status in heaven, elevating her in the eyes of the viewer. Red also has a symbolic meaning. Red, in this religious context, symbolizes the earth and blood, reminding the viewer of Mary’s mortality. Her red tunic is in direct contrast with her blue veil. The color blue has been associated with Mary in art since the Medieval period. The ultramarine blue pigment she is often painted wearing was rare and highly sought after, causing artists to pick meaningful and important subject matter when using the pigment. Blue has also been characterized as a divine color, as it is the color of the sky, and therefore, heaven. When the two colors are paired together, as they are in Mourning Virgin, the viewer can infer that the red symbolizes Mary’s human origin, while the blue becomes a sign for her divinity and importance in heaven.
The textiles being depicted would have most likely been a wool or linen fiber plain weave or twill garment, as those fibers were common for the lower classed in both periods discussed. Simple weaves were common as they are the easiest and cheapest weaves to produce. In the Medieval period, textile production would have been done either at home or in professional weaving mills. In the 12th Century, the horizontal loom was widespread and most basic woven textiles would have been produced using it. On a horizontal loom, the warp yarns are stretched out between two beams while the weft yarn is woven in and out of the warp yarns by hand, creating a simple yet sturdy weave. By the middle ages, the horizontal loom became mechanized, which only required the weaver to press a foot pedal to raise up a group warp yarns, allowing the weft yarn to be passed in-between the raised and flat warp yarns in one motion, with the aid of a shuttle.
Despite the relatively small stature, there is much to be discussed. A viewer can begin to understand the history, interpretation, and religious meaning incorporated into the work, just by looking at the textiles the artist depicted. Textiles are an important part of our cultural narrative, as they can tell contemporary audiences the histories of the past.