Penelope with the Suitors
Pintoricchio. c 1509
My rather wonky photo of a painting in the National Gallery depicts weaving and tells the story of fidelity and attracted my attention particularly because of the textile reference.
In The Odyssey, Penelope was the wife of Odysseus, king of Ithaca. He was called away to fight in the Trojan war and for 20 years she waited for his return. In his absence, her hand was sought by many suitors and she kept their amorous advances at bay by various ploys. One of them was to weave a burial shroud for her father-in-law Laertes; she said she would choose a second husband once she had finished the garment. For three years she wove on her loom but secretly at night she undid her weaving to prolong it and forestall the evil day.
In the painting you can see her defensively sitting behind her loom, one hand resting on the paltry length of finished fabric on the cloth beam, her left hand reaching for the reed to beat the pick she’s just woven – the dormant shuttle lying on the warp threads. She’s not making any great effort to speed up her weaving, she’s only working at it because of the gaggle of unwelcome suitors bursting in through the door. Like a lot of fibre artists, she even has her pet cat sitting by her feet playing with a ball of yarn! Given how long it takes me to weave a piece of cloth on my little rigid heddle loom, I’m almost surprised at her need to unpick the cloth – I’m pretty certain I could spin out weaving a shroud for more than 3 years if I had to on my current showing…
In the background, Odysseus enters in disguise to find his loyal wife fending off her pack of lusty suitors with her loom and cunning. I like Penelope – she’s got them sussed. I also like that she can fob men off with tardy weaving and get away with it until her sneaky servant Athena rumbles her. Happily for Penelope she adds a final test to stall the men – she will only marry the suitor who can string and shoot Odysseus’ bow (hanging above her head). Which only the disguised Odysseus can so all is joy and happiness again (and she has no more excuses to finish her weaving…)