She Worketh Willingly With Her Hands by Elspeth Young

She Worketh Willingly With Her Hands


{ Lydia }
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And on the sabbath we went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made; and we sat down, and spake unto the women which resorted thither.

And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.

Acts 16:13-14

Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies...

She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.

She is like the merchants' ships; she bringeth her food from afar.

She ariseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.

She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.

She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms. She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.

She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff. She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy. She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet. She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.

She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.

Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come. She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness. She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her. Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all. Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.

Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.

Proverbs 31:10-31

For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Galatians 3:27-29

The story behind She Worketh Willingly With Her Hands

Lydia, the first recorded European convert to Christianity (see Harper 586), is depicted in this image as a model of the "virtuous woman" described in Proverbs 31.  Such a woman is extolled as one who "worketh willingly" with strength, provides for the needy, and clothes herself and her family with "silk and purple."  She is wise, her "merchandise is good" and is "like the merchants' ships."  She "maketh fine linen and selleth it" (see Proverbs 31).  Surely such descriptions are apt for the disciple Lydia, whose "heart the Lord opened" (see Acts 16:14) to hear the word of the Lord, and whose household also accepted the gospel.  The painting, therefore, seeks to visually combine the attributes of the "virtuous woman" and the Biblical heroine, Lydia.

Lydia shows her faith through her willingness to be baptized and through her gracious hospitality.  Luke describes it in these words: "And when [Lydia] was baptized, and her household, she besought us, saying, If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there.  And she constrained us" (Acts 16:15).  Both she and the Shunnamite (see 2 Kings chapter 4), are described as "constraining" God's servant to share her home, and then seeing to his needs and wants.

Lydia's faith is made active through her works.  Therefore, the painting shows Lydia doing something.  She is not eating "the bread of idleness."  She is working "willingly with her hands," hands which have stretched out in kindness to Paul and Luke, providing shelter for them, and, as inferred by Acts 6:40, for her fellow saints as well (see Thurston 124 and Massey 45).  In addition to faith and industry, she evidenced humility through the "openness" of her heart (see Acts 16:14).

The Book of Mormon prophet, Alma, describes those, like Lydia, who are "truly [humble]...and...in a preparation to hear the word (Alma 32:6)...blessed are they who humble themselves without being compelled to be humble...that believeth in the word of God, and is baptized without stubbornness of heart, yea, without being brought to know the word, or even compelled to know, before they will believe" (Alma 32:16).  Surely, such is an apt description of Lydia, who was humbly prepared to receive the Lord's word through Paul and accept the ordinance of baptism.

Lydia's humility is evident in the composition of the painting.  Not only is she working, she is doing so without looking toward the viewer, not drawing attention to herself.  She is, apparently, not even doing anything worthy of notice.  She is humbly looking to the "ways of her household," focused on the "fruit of her hands" (see Proverbs 31).  The composition of the image invites the viewer to focus on her work, not herself.  Nothing about her is showy or ostentatious.  Instead, she radiates the beauty which comes from faith, humility, and quiet selflessness.

Symbolism in She Worketh Willingly With Her Hands

Lydia worked as a "seller of purple" in the Roman colony of Philippi, a place for Roman veterans (Zondervan 335).  Though some recent Biblical scholars dispute the nature of the purple dye Lydia was selling and, therefore, the social standing of this woman, the artist has chosen to depict Lydia as a woman of "means and social status" selling costly "Tyrian purple" coveted by the Roman elite (see Zondervan 383 and Klinckt 110).  Such purple was produced by crushing shells of the Murex snail (see Barber, 113-114 and Sebesta 69) and was extremely precious because each snail contained only one drop of the dye.  Hundreds of snails were required to create enough purple for just one piece of cloth (see Barber 114, 210). Two or three of these murex snails are visible in the painting at the bottom right, nestled among the logs in the copper vat.  Purple was perceived by the Roman people of Lydia's day as a symbol of royal blood (Sebasta 47)--in fact, only the emperor of Rome could wear a completely purple garment (Barber 210).

The two pieces of purple cloth within the image, therefore, are symbolic on several levels.  First, they remind the viewer of Lydia's work, in a literal sense, as a seller of purple.  More importantly, however, the purple indicates Lydia's divine worth as an individual and her "royal" rights as one of the seed of Abraham.  Gentile though Lydia was, she was baptized and "adopted" into the chosen people.  In the words of the Apostle Paul, those that are baptized, be they Jew or Gentile, "have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:27).  Paul teaches that previous ideas about race requirements were no longer prerequisite to salvation--only accepting the ordinances and covenants of the gospel of Jesus Christ were (and are) required.  He continues, "There is neither Jew nor Greek...bond nor free...male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:28-29).  The purple, therefore, symbolizes her status as an "heir according to the promise."  The purple silk at Lydia's throat is also meant to indicate her worthiness as a "virtuous woman;" one whose "clothing is silk and purple."

The flowers at the lower left of the painting are Euphorbia milii, known as "Crown of Thorns" or "Christ plant."  The woody stem on which these flowers grow are traditionally believed to be the material used in the crown of thorns made by Roman soldiers during the Savior's crucifixion, when they "plaited a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and...put on him a purple robe" (John 19:2).  Just as flowers may be considered a "fruit" of the plant on which they grow, those, like Lydia, who "follow the Son, with full purpose of heart" into the waters of baptism (see 2 Nephi 31:13) become Christ's "seed, or...the heirs of the kingdom of God" (Mosiah 15:11).  The white blossoms depicted here, therefore, are meant to symbolize Lydia and her household as heirs of the kingdom of God, or the "seed" of Christ, as taught by the prophet Abinadi.

The Savior's sacrifice enables those, like Lydia, who believe on His name and follow His example, to be cleansed of sin--to be as pure as the white fabric she holds in her hands.  The cotton-like material Lydia is working with (fabric known to Rome--see Sebesta 68) represents the Lord's promise as recorded by the Prophet Isaiah that:  "though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool" (Isaiah 1:18).
© By Elspeth Young, All Rights Reserved. You may not print, copy, or reproduce this artwork or make derivative works from it without the prior written consent of the copyright holder. For permissions, please review our FAQ page.



From the Newsroom


Holiday shipping schedule

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Please be aware of the following policies and recommendations:
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