The Story in Paintings: The thread of fate

Paul Thumann (1834–1908), The Three Fates (c 1880), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In a previous article, I wrote of, and showed, paintings which depicted the thread of time, and gave a brief glimpse into the subject for this article, the thread of fate and the Fates themselves.

The Fates

In classical Greek and Roman mythology, the lives of humans are determined by the thread spun for them by the Moirai (Greek) or Fatae (Roman). Because of their importance, the Romans also came to refer to them euphemistically as the Parcae (the sparing ones). The three were further identified as:

  • Clotho (or Nona), the spinner, who holds the distaff and spindle, and spins the thread of life;
  • Lachesis (or Decima), the allotter, who measures the thread allotted to each person using her measuring rod;
  • Atropos (or Morta), the unturnable, who cuts the thread for each person, choosing the time and manner of their death.

Il Sodoma (Giovanni Antonio Bazzi) (1477–1549), The Three Fates (c 1525)

Il Sodoma (Giovanni Antonio Bazzi) (1477–1549), The Three Fates (c 1525), oil on canvas, 201 x 210 cm, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

This classical depiction of the Fates shows, from the left, Lachesis, Atropos wielding her shears, and Clotho with her distaff and spindle. This painting may have been influenced by the contemporary publication of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1512-1532), in which cantos 34-35 describe St John taking Astolfo to meet the Fates.

Pieter Thijs (1624–1677), Time and the Three Fates (c 1665)

Pieter Thijs (1624–1677), Time and the Three Fates (c 1665), oil on canvas, 137.5 × 164.5 cm, Museum of Art and History, Geneva. Wikimedia Commons.

Thijs shows an even more significant group, with the Fates before Father Time. From the left, the Fates are Clotho and Lachesis, who are working together, and Atropos, with her shears, who is disarmingly looking straight at the viewer, knowing your fate.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Fates Spinning Marie’s Destiny (or The Destiny of Marie de’ Medici) (1622-5)

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Fates Spinning Marie’s Destiny (1622-5), oil on canvas, 394 x 153 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Rubens’ painting is the first in the series of twenty-four which were commissioned in 1621 to decorate the Luxembourg Palace, Paris, for Marie de’ Medici, who was the wife of King Henry IV of France.

He shows the three Fates without a pair of shears, suggesting the Queen’s relative immortality. Above them are Juno and Jupiter; Juno appears throughout the series at the Queen’s avatar, and Jupiter as the King. Given Jupiter’s promiscuity, this may have indicated deep insight into the royal relationship.

Paul Thumann (1834–1908), The Three Fates (c 1880)

Paul Thumann (1834–1908), The Three Fates (c 1880), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

This Salon-style depiction of the Fates was extremely popular throughout Europe, and was often reproduced on mass-produced porcelain. It is unusual for drawing such marked distinctions between the women: Atropos, on the left, is shown as a morose older woman, armed with her shears; Clotho stands to weave, and is young, very pretty, and bare down to the waist; Lachesis is modestly-dressed and holding sprigs of vegetation, at the right.

John Melhuish Strudwick (1849–1935), A Golden Thread (1885)

The bottom panel of Strudwick’s painting (shown in full in the previous article) contains a very different depiction of the Fates.

John Melhuish Strudwick (1849–1935), A Golden Thread (detail) (1885), oil on canvas, 72.4 x 42.5 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Clotho and Lachesis are at the front, working together to spin and measure out the thread, which is here a mixture of gold (for life) and grey. Atropos sits behind, poised to use her shears when ready. I am not sure of the origin of the two different coloured threads, which may be original to this artist.

Jacek Malczewski (1854–1929), Saint Francis of Assisi (1908)

Jacek Malczewski (1854–1929), Saint Francis of Assisi (1908), oil on canvas, 136 x 201 cm, National Museum in Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Malczewski modernises the Fates in his fascinating allegorical portrait of St Francis of Assisi. All three appear similar, with similar clothing, hair, and features. Clotho is at the left, with a pink apron, Atropos holds a modern pair of scissors rather than the traditional shears, and has a light purple apron, and Lachesis is on the other side of St Francis, with a pale blue apron. The right of the painting contains a group of semi-human mythical creatures, rather than the traditional birds and small animals typically associated with this saint.

Henry Siddons Mowbray (1858–1928), Destiny (1896)

Henry Siddons Mowbray (1858–1928), Destiny (1896), oil on canvas, 76 x 103 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Mowbray’s Destiny is also more complicated, and elaborates on the classical myth; it bears careful examination, as the three women sat together at one end of the tapestry may not all be Fates!

The three who do appear identifiable are Clotho, who is standing at the far right with a whole web of threads, Lachesis who is at the back of the group of three, bringing a thead down from Clotho, and Atropos, who is at the left, armed with her shears. The group appears to be working on a tapestry which might represent individuals, or mankind more generally.


The classical Fates are unusual in having many parallels in other European myths and legends, even extending to Shakespeare’s three witches in his play Macbeth, modern Celtic-based religion, and Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters (1988), although their roles and characteristics become far removed from the originals.

Their closest parallel are the Norns (or nornir) of Norse mythology, named Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld in Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá. Inevitably there are various accounts which differ greatly in detail, but one fairly common role is to draw water from the Well of Urðr (Fate) which they pour over Yggdrasil (the immense holy ash tree) so that its branches will not decay. They rule the destiny of the gods and of humans.

Johan Ludwig Lund (1777–1867), The Norns of Norse Mythology (c 1844)

Johan Ludwig Lund (1777–1867), The Norns of Norse Mythology (c 1844), other details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

JL Lund’s painting is atypical in that it shows one Norn with wings. They are here symbolically equipped with a book, containing the record of fate, a balance to weigh people’s lives with, and (I think) a wooden measuring stick. Their names are given in Runes below: Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld.

Alois Delug (1859-1930), The Norns (1895)

Alois Delug (1859-1930), The Norns (1895), oil on canvas, 223 x 354 cm, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto (Mart), Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Delug’s evocative depiction shows them at the foot of Yggdrasil handling the thread of fate, bringing a more Greek interpretation.

Spinning and weaving

Spinning fibres such as wool into yarn to be woven into fabric have been common tasks throughout the world for around 20,000 years, and have become increasingly sophisticated and more productive. Hand spinning was commonplace from classical times until the spinning jenny was invented in about 1764, and was progressively mechanised thereafter. It is therefore not surprising that many paintings show spinning, weaving, and their equipment.

However, I have tried to select those in which spinning or weaving is part of a deeper reading of the painting, to explore their symbolic and metaphorical use in narrative paintings.

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), The Spinners (Las Hilanderas, The Fable of Arachne) (c 1657)

For a long time, it was believed that Velázquez’ Las Hilanderas showed the tapestry workshop of Santa Isabel, and it was not until 1948 that Diego Angula proposed that it depicted the legend of Arachne.

Arachne, in Greek and Roman legend, was described in three different accounts, of which Ovid’s, in his Metamorphoses, is probably the most popular and appropriate here. Arachne was a shepherd’s daughter who became the greatest weaver in the world, and boasted that her skill was greater than that of the goddess Athena. The latter set up a contest between them, posing as an old woman who then challenged Arachne before revealing herself.

Unfortunately for Arachne, she not only produced work more beautiful than Athena’s, but it showed the many lapses of the gods and their unfairness to mankind. Athena was enraged by this, ripped Arachne’s work to shreds, and sprinkled her with Hecate’s potion, which turned her into a spider. She and her kin were thus condemned to weave for all time.

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), The Spinners (Las Hilanderas, The Fable of Arachne) (c 1657), oil on canvas, 220 x 289 cm, Prado Museum, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Reading this painting has also been complicated by the fact that it was probably damaged by fire in 1734, as a result of which it was significantly enlarged, presumably as part of its repair.

The current reading of this painting is that the foreground section shows the weaving contest between Athena, as an old woman on the left, and Arachne, as a young woman on the right. The background area then displays their completed tapestries, of which Arachne’s is visible, and shows a copy of Titian’s The Rape of Europa, another Greek myth.

The snag with that reading is that it does not fit what the painting actually shows: the older woman at the left is not weaving but spinning, using a spinning wheel which would also have been an anachronism at the time of Arachne’s contest. Ovid’s account is also clear in stating that, before the contest started, Athena revealed herself in her full glory, and did not retain the appearance of an old woman. Furthermore, the woman on the right is not weaving either, but is winding spun yarn into balls. Neither is there any evidence in the foreground of the presence of any dyed yarn which might be suitable for weaving.

It thus appears more probable that the original reading of this painting is correct, and the women in the front of the painting are spinning as the first part of the process of creating the large and ornate tapestries seen at the back.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), The Annunciation (1914)

In the New Testament Gospels, the angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary in a vision, in which she was told that she would conceive and become the mother of Christ. In pictorial representations, the angel shown traditionally holds white lily flowers, to mark Mary’s purity.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), The Annunciation (1914), oil on canvas, 99 × 135 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

JW Waterhouse’s depiction of this extremely popular Christian narrative breaks some conventions, most obviously that the angel is not Gabriel but a female with beautiful blue wings. Mary, wearing her traditional blue clothing, has by her side a loaded distaff used for spinning. There are various anachronisms, such as the lectern at the right edge of the canvas.

It is possible that Waterhouse was making the thread link to concepts of fate, and highly likely that he intended us to take account of the distaff in our reading.

William Holman Hunt (1827–1910) & Edward Robert Hughes (1851–1914), The Lady of Shalott (1905)

William Holman Hunt (1827–1910) & Edward Robert Hughes (1851–1914), The Lady of Shalott (1905), oil on canvas, 188.3 x 146.3 cm, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

I have already shown Waterhouse’s painting of the Lady of Shalott at her weaving. Holman Hunt’s equivalent wraps her up in numerous coloured threads from that weaving, invoking thread metaphors and reference to Arachne and her spider’s webs. This painting is also rich in other symbols and references.

Albert Anker (1831–1910), Queen Bertha and the Spinners (1888)

Bertha of Swabia (c 907-966) was the daughter of Burchard II, Duke of Swabia, and became the Queen Consort of Burgundy by her marriage in 922 to King Rudolph II of Burgundy. After his death in 937, she married Hugh of Italy, and married a third time after he died in 947.

Albert Anker (1831–1910), Queen Bertha and the Spinners (1888), oil on canvas, 86 × 126 cm, Musée Cantonal des Beaux-arts, Lausanne, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

Albert Anker shows Bertha seated, wearing a plain crown, with three girls who are presumably children within the royal court, who are learning to spin using distaffs. This is generally interpreted as nostalgia for artisanal work before the Industrial Revolution, as happened during the Arts and Crafts movements which swept Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century. However, the significance of a long thread dispensed by the three Fates is appropriate for a woman who somehow survived three marriages, at a time when reaching the age of thirty was quite an achievement.

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884), Joan of Arc (1879)

Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–1884), Joan of Arc (1879), oil on canvas, 254 × 279.4 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, via Wikimedia Commons.

Joan of Arc remains a popular and evocative figure from the early history of France. Painted by Bastien-Lepage during the years of revanchism after France’s ignominious defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1, it met the same needs as the history paintings of Évariste Luminais.

He chose to show Joan at the moment of her first peripeteia, when she first received her call to arms against the English, in her vision of 1424. She is watched by Saints Michael, Margaret, and Catherine in semi-transparent forms, and behind her, at the left, is the frame on which she was spinning (probably winding spun yarn into a ball) prior to her vision. The thread of fate was of great significance to her over the remainder of her tragically brief life.


The three Fates have remained popular figures in narrative painting for many centuries, although in more recent years their appearance has been in more complex situations, reflecting the increasing complexity and indirection of many narrative paintings since 1800. The thread of fate, derived from the classical myth of the Fates, may well have transferred into paintings which do not include the Fates themselves. However, there are traps to catch the unwary, and it is very important to understand the differences between spinning, which makes the thread, and weaving, which turns it into a finished fabric.