Today’s posting is brief.  It is here primarily to answer a question from a reader, and it is likely that others have the same question.  So here goes.

You are probably all familiar with the usual icons of the Annunciation — the angel Gabriel coming to Mary, telling her she is to bear a son.  Here is a 14th century Byzantine example, showing the usual elements.  It is standard to have Gabriel at left, and Mary at right.  Most of the Annunciation icons one sees, in spite of small variations in detail, just have the two persons.

(Skoplje Museum)


In some Russian and Greek icons of the 15th to 17th centuries, however, we find an added person.  Here, for example, we see it in a Novgorod icon of the 16th century:

There she is– the “extra” person at lower right, seated below Mary.  Here is a larger view:

If you look just to the right of her hands, you can see a vertical rod with round knobs at intervals.  It is a device used in spinning, and that is what this person is doing.  Though it is difficult to see, she is holding a thread in her left hand, attached to a spindle in her right hand.  She is an anonymous sluzhanka, as she would be called in Russia — a serving maid.  You can see she has no halo.

Such a pre- spinning wheel device (but it was still in use in rural areas in relatively modern times) is called a прялка/pryalka in Russian.  A small mass of tow (unspun flax fibers) was placed on a holder atop the rod.  The rod itself was fixed at the base into a long, flat, horizontal board, on which the spinner sat.  She pulled the tow with her left hand, and as it was twisted into thread, it was wound on the spindle.  Many later pryalki (plural form) had heavily decorated tops to hold the tow.  You see examples of various kinds in this photo taken from an article by Elena Svetoyarova (

By the way, tow used to be a common word in English, but now that most people have lost touch with the old crafts of spinning and weaving at home, it is seldom used.  It was the source of the term “towhead”, often used for a child with very light flaxen hair.  Perhaps you recall the pleasant French piano composition by Debussy — “La fille aux cheveux de lin” — “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.”

If we look closely at the image of Mary in this icon, we see that she too holds a thread that passes through her hands to the spool seen at left, but in her case, the thread is red:

You may recall the apocryphal tradition that Mary was chosen to weave the veil for the Temple in Jerusalem.

Here is another Russian example from the 16th century.  It too includes the sluzhanka as an “extra” person.

(Andrei Rublev Central Museum of Early Russian Culture and Art)

And there again is that tall, knobbly rod used in spinning, just to the right of the maid.

So now you know.  The answer is nothing mysterious, just the addition of an icon “extra” in the scene.  As you may recall from a previous posting, I like to compare the persons — such as this sluzhanka — who are occasionally found in icons, to “extras” in a movie — those persons who are in a scene, but have no name or credit — just as an icon “extra” generally is given no name or title.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.