Groups of three female figures are quite common in Western art, but they can represent very different ideas. In fact, the two most common groups, which are the Fates and the Three Graces, are both associated with life, but the Fates represent destiny and death, while the Graces represent life at its fullest.
Unknown tapestry maker, The Three Fates – The Triumph of Death, early 16th century, Victoria and Albert Museum, London — Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum
The Fates were considered to be the ones who decide of birth, life and death for each person. They were called Moirai by the Greeks, Parcae by the Romans, Norns by the Scandinavians, and share very similar features across those three civilizations.
The first was the spinner who made the thread for every human life, the second was the one who measured the length of that thread, and the third the one who cut the thread, deciding how the person would die.
Giorgio Ghisi, The Three Fates, 1558, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York — Photo © Metropolitan Museum of Art
They usually have a serious, old or sad appearance, and they hold the rod on which the thread is spun, the thread itself, and most of the time, but not always, the scissors to cut the thread.
Alfred Agache, The Parcae, 1880s, Fine Arts Museum, Lille
The Fate’s appearance greatly contrasts with that of the Three Graces, who are usually young and playful. Their best-known representation is in Botticelli’s Primavera:
Botticelli, Primavera, c.1482, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
The Three Graces in Botticelli’s Primavera
The Three Graces represent beauty, joy and plenty. They are usually shown holding hands, smiling at each other, dancing or hugging, forming a close-knit group.
Smile of The Three Graces, Roman copy of Greek statue, (c.2nd century, then restored in 1609), Louvre Museum, Paris — Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen
Antonio Canova, The Three Graces, 1814-1817, Victoria and Albert Museum, London — Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum
So if you find yourself in front of a group of three female figures in a painting or sculpture, look at what they’re holding and doing. If they’re holding something that has to do with thread, they’re probably the Fates, representing human destiny and death. Otherwise, they’re probably the Graces, representing beauty, joy and plenty, in a great celebration of life.