There are several challenges in assessing iconographic evidence of utilitarian implements and the contexts of their use. One is recognizing the difference between a representation of an object or process that may be stylized but can otherwise be corroborated, and an imagined depiction that coincidentally appears to be plausible. This difficulty is compounded when an image includes details that can be identified with a fair degree of confidence, in proximity to others that are more likely to be misrepresented. There is also a contextual aspect to this. If graphic evidence of a tool used for handicraft appears in seemingly realistic detail at a completely unexpected time or place, particular care is needed before basing revolutionary conclusions on it.
A range of such considerations attaches to early illustrations of the production of looped fabric. Current reviews of the history of knitting are commonly illustrated with portraits of so-called Knitting Madonnas. Perhaps the best known, and certainly the most clearly detailed, is in a scene on the Buxtehude Altar painted by Master Bertram ca. 1400. It unequivocally depicts four double-pointed knitting needles used for working a garment with what is now termed a seamless yoke construction.
This design matches that of the robe worn by Jesus on the cross described in John 19:23: “This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.” The precise wording varies among translations and I have cited the one at the top of the listing here. The accompanying vocabulary provides this definition:
Adjective – Nominative Masculine Singular
Strong’s Greek 5307: Woven. From huphaino to weave; woven, i.e. knitted.
The first translation of the New Testament directly from Greek into German was published by Martin Luther in 1522. He translated ὑφαντὸς as gewirkt (the adjectival form of wirken — a cognate of the English “to work”). This word has figured time and again in posts here dealing with German texts where it designates looped fabric in explicit contrast to woven. Luther states equally clearly that the robe (Rock) was made “unseamed, looped from the top through and through” (…vngenehet von oben an gewirckt durch vnd durch…). In contemporary text, wirken is frequently translated as warp knitting but was used historically to designate tapestry and a number of production techniques for non-woven fabric.
Earlier bibles in vernacular German were translated from the Latin Vulgate Bible, in turn translated from the Greek in the 4th century. I haven’t seen any of the intervening versions but Luther’s translation could as easily have been made directly from the Vulgate, “…inconsutilis, desuper contexta per totum….” The pivotal “contexta” is commonly translated as “woven.” However, it does not specifically designate work on a loom but rather joining in the general sense of intertwining. There is no question otherwise about the description of the garment as seamless and worked in one piece starting at the top.
Religious commentaries that began to appear in Germany at the end of the 12th century are consistent with Luther’s wording and add that Mary made a robe of the same design for Jesus as a child. At least one account states that he wore it for his entire life and that it grew with him to match his body size. This leads to a reasonable expectation of Master Bertram having depicted the child-sized version of that garment. However, he shows it being worked from bottom to top, rather than top down as explicitly noted in the gospel verse.
This typifies the questions attaching to iconographic analysis that introduce this post. The array of needles is represented with enough accuracy to make it unlikely that they were painted from memory or imagination. Among the things the artist might have determined in preparatory consultation with a knitter is that, if shown being worked downward from the top, the garment would also need to be portrayed upside down. If it is safe to assume that this was artistically (and perhaps exegetically) unacceptable, the obvious next question would be if it could be knitted upward from the bottom.
One answer to it may conceivably have been, “There is, but you won’t find a knitter who knows how to do it that way anywhere nearby.” Mary’s hands are not depicted in a plausible working position and the yarn is wrapped around the needles beyond where they intersect. It therefore seems unlikely that anybody directly familiar with knitting technique assisted in arranging the scene. The grand question then becomes whether a set of knitting needles had been lashed to the top of a finished garment by someone uncertain how to do so realistically, or the actual explanation involves more extensive artistic license.
Although not normally noted in discussions of the Knitting Madonnas, such images are only one facet of a broader genre showing Mary engaged in a range of crafts. Embroidery, spinning, and tablet weaving are the most common, and knitting is not the only represented type of loopcraft. Regina Flury-Bültzingslöwen, whom we met in an earlier post about the distinction between true knitting and other forms of looping, discusses the broader scope of such illustrations in an article titled Maria mit Handarbeiten (Mary with Handwork), published in 1957.
In it, she compares the preceding garment with another of the same design but unquestionably worked top down, noting that these are the only known portrayals of Mary making the ostensible Holy Robe in a complete enough state to support its identification. The second of them is seen in an engraving by Veit Stoss, from ca. 1480.
If the tool in Mary’s right hand were an eyed needle rather than a bobbin, this would be taken as an illustration of medieval nalbinding. That method of fabric production was used for liturgical gloves at the time and would have been known to Mary if she indeed did practice the looped arts. An epic poem in Middle High German about the life of Mary, freely translated and adapted by Phillip von Seitz ca. 1340 from an earlier Latin text relates, “…the robe was made as one loops (wirket) gloves and caps that one wears on the head, not seamed (geneit) and yet made from yarn…”.
If a garment of this design is knitted bottom up with twisted stitches and compared side-by-side with one made top down as nalbound cross-knit looping, the structure of the fabric and the orientation of the stitches in it will be identical in both. In principle, the same would be true if the looping were worked with the bobbin seen in the engraving. The problem is that when judged in proportion to the hand, its aggregate diameter with the wrapped thread is not amenable to producing fabric with closely worked small stitches. Such implements (albeit wrapped differently) are more commonly associated with netting. This has a far more open structure than the illustrated garment likely would have had, and might otherwise be expected to have been captured in the engraving.
This concern would be reduced by seeing the bobbin as a stylized representation of the tool in the following two illustrations. This is a specialized form of bobbin with a thin cylindrical shaft and a small fork at each end, called a “netting needle.” The thread is wrapped lengthwise around the shaft and held in place by the forks. Such tools have been recovered from archeological sites that far predate the entire period under discussion, as this exemplar from Egypt in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, dated to 1550–1458 BCE.
On some needles, the forks are positioned at a right angle to each other. When looking toward the open face of one, the other is seen from its side. This form appears to be illustrated in a painting from ca. 1460 where Mary is embroidering in the company of three women engaged in other activities. The reproduction in the Flury article is of limited quality but this detail taken from it clearly shows the woman at Mary’s right side to be netting with the full range of additional implements used for the decorative form of that craft (just as they were to appear in countless 19th-century fancywork instructions).
The needle is in her left hand and the implement in her right hand is the “mesh” used to set the gauge of the netting. As with the image on the Buxtehude Altar, there are flaws in the posing and finer detail, of which the most relevant is the thread being wrapped similarly incorrectly around the needle. Such tools are still produced, as shown here in the same 20 cm length as the one made over three millennia earlier, and correlating to a knitting needle of ≈4 mm diameter.
Smaller netting needles were used as alternatives to tatting shuttles during the 1850s. Although viable from the technical perspective, they were ultimately abandoned because they could not be tucked into a pocket as conveniently and safely as shuttles could. The possibility of the Stoss engraving reflecting the use of a netting needle for plain or cross-knit looping might be worth similar empirical assessment before concluding that he had conflated tools and crafts. (There is also a potential can of nomenclatural worms here.)
The thread does appear to be wrapped around the illustrated bobbin clearly enough to contraindicate the notion of it being a stylized representation of a netting needle. There is no such question about the tool shown in the earlier painting, despite the incorrect wrap. If it in any way served as a model for Stoss (as might also be indicated by the floor stands in both) this flaw could easily have been carried into it.