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The Way of BeautyUntying Knots

Most of us love television mysteries. We follow our sleuth in detecting clues that will ultimately loosen the knots and solve the mystery.  Whether it’s Agatha Christie with Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Jessica Fletcher, or Columbo, Sherlock Holmes, Inspectors Lewis and Foyle, or Father Brown, they delight us with their unique approaches to solving mysteries. 

Greek and Roman Drama

In Greek tragedy, like Superman, the gods insert themselves into a knotted problem—it may deal with a family or a national dilemma.  Not above mischief, the gods themselves may initiate the problem.  Then suddenly, abruptly, they swoop down, intervene, loosen the knot, and resolve the mystery.  Collectively, the gods are the deus ex machina, the god from the machine. 

The difference between modern-day sleuths and the deus ex machina is that the latter work with the speed of lightning to resolve the narrative.  The former take a little longer to solve the mystery in which the writer has painted the culprit into a corner. 

Knots in Mary’s Life

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With the angelic message, Mary’s placid life at Nazareth was suddenly thrown into turmoil, as was Joseph’s. Once they were married and traveled to Bethlehem to enroll in the census, there were concerns about a suitable place for the Child’s birth. In escaping Herod’s wrath, they were filled with tension trekking off to Egypt in the middle of the night like fugitives. Then there were predictions by Simeon and Anna about the Child’s future.  And what of the loss in the temple?  It would be one stressful event after the other—a series of knots.

Mary at the Wedding Feast of Cana

It’s at the wedding at Cana that we see Mary untying a knot for others, at least in its initial stage (Jn 2:1-11).  The wine has run out.  On a day when the bride and groom should be rejoicing, they’re in great distress. What will the guests think and say? 

Mary notices the problem before the guests and intends to do something about it.  Jesus sees but plans to remain uninvolved. They’re her friends. Still, he will not refuse his mother’s request, this she knows. 

Just one sentence to him, stating the problem.  ‘Now is not the time for a miracle,’ comes his ready response. She looks past him as though not listening.   “Do whatever he tells you,” come her confident words to the waiter. You have to love her cool, as our young people might say.

The Story behind Our Lady, the One Who Unties Knots

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The story of Our Lady under this title begins in 1612 in Augsburg, Bavaria in Germany.  Wolfgang Langenmantel and Sophia Rentz, husband and wife and both of noble estate, were on the verge of a divorce.  Over a period of twenty-eight days, Wolfgang sought help from Jakob Rem, a Jesuit priest who prayed with him to Our Lady to untie the knots of their marital problems.  They prayed that she smooth out the ribbon that had bound them together at their wedding ceremony. The divorce did not happen, and together the couple lived a peaceful married life.  Years later, to commemorate this turn of events, their grandson, Fr. Hieronymus Langenmantel of St. Peter’s Monastery in Augsburg commissioned the painting, “Untier of Knots.” 

Earliest Reference to Our Lady, Untier of Knots

The earliest reference to this depiction of Our Lady is found in Adversus haereses, “Against Heresies,” written by St. Irenaeus of Lyons in the second century.  In Book III, Chapter 22, he draws a parallel between Eve and Mary. “The knot of Eve’s disobedience,” he writes, “was loosed by the obedience of Mary” (Gen 3:15).   In its basic theological meaning, the image symbolizes Mary untying the knot of the first sin and first act of disobedience in the Garden.

The painting, oil on poplar, was executed in 1700 by Johann Georg Schmidtner and is cast in the typical Baroque style with its dramatic flair and didactic effect.  Our Lady is flanked by two angels.  She is untying knots from a long marriage ribbon which, in the seventeenth century, represented the marital union.  It has also come to symbolize the knots that are part of any marriage.  At the same time, she presses her foot crushing the head of a coiled (or knotted) serpent. The painting is located in St. Peter’s Church in Augsburg. 

Pope Francis and Our Lady, Untier of Knots

Our Lady’s ingenuity and her practical streak are captured in the title dear to the heart of Pope Francis.   He has cultivated a special devotion to Our Lady depicted as the one who unties knots.  While a graduate student in Germany, he was inspired by a Bavarian painting entitled, “Holy Mother, Our Lady, Untier of Knots.”  When he returned to Argentina with a copy of that image on a postcard, he had an icon struck with this same title.  He seems intent on following Our Lady’s example by untying knots within the Church and in the wider community of nations.

Today, devotion to Our Lady under this title is growing by leaps and bounds.  It can touch those beset by sudden illness, sudden financial trouble, sudden ‘anything.’ Devotion to Our Lady under this title is especially popular among married people, given her active role at the wedding at Cana.

There are countless visuals depicting the wedding at Cana but none more telling than that of Giotto, the fourteenth-century Florentine painter.  The fresco of Cana is the eighth of twenty-four in the life of Christ painted on the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.   The unusual fresco shows Mary with her hand raised in blessing as her son performs the miracle that she has initiated.  The feast day of Mary, “untier of knots,” falls on September 28th.

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