The Way of Beauty A Tribute to Mothers

Mary Credit Wendell via Flickr CC BY NC ND 20 filter added CNA 11 10 15

Every major tradition, culture, and nation celebrates Mother's Day.  Each of us knows instinctively that this day belongs to those special women we call our mothers, living or deceased. 

The noun mother refers to a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth. Mother is a relational word, as is father. An expectant mother conceives, carries within her, and nourishes a developing human person.  

Motherhood is God's miraculous gift from which emerges human life that is nurtured, protected, and loved.  In pre-historic times, men were in awe of women's power and worshiped them for it. 

Untying Knots

Mothers are practical people-at their best when untying knots.  They smooth things out, resolve petty squabbles and seemingly intractable problems.  Mothers are the soul and inspiration of the family, the mortar holding it together in a network of relationships that give meaning to family life.  A mother loves unconditionally; her love and care, ever-present. As the first educator of the family, there is no one like a mother, no substitute for her and for the centrality of her role in the family.  She is sui generis.

A Heartbroken Mother and the Downfall of a Nation

A mother would rather die than see her child suffer. For a moment, consider the tragic case of the last Romanov family, Tsar Nicholas II, his consort Alexandra, and their five children.  Alexis, their only son and future Tsar, was born with hemophilia, a disease of the blood transmitted by the mother to her male offspring. In the early twentieth century, ordinary channels of medicine proved useless to alleviate his suffering.

So desperate was the empress to untie the knot of her son's illness that she took control of the situation by turning to Rasputin, the half-crazed, unwashed, and sexually promiscuous Russian peasant who boasted of his powers as a mystical faith healer.  She pleaded with him to heal the dying Tsarevich. He did so, and thereafter, Alexandra firmly defended his otherwise sordid reputation. To avoid upsetting Alexandra, Nicholas refused to dismiss the peasant who came to exercise a decisive role in the affairs of state. Alexandra's desperation over her sick child had far-reaching consequences: History has blamed her and Rasputin for bringing about the collapse of the Romanov dynasty that led to the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Earliest Reference to Our Lady, Untier of Knots

The earliest reference to a 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 Story behind Devotion to Our Lady, Untier of Knots 

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 out 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."  

"Holy Mother, Our Lady, Untier of Knots"  is an oil painted on poplar.  It 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. At the same time, she presses her foot crushing the head of a coiled (or knotted) serpent. The painting has also come to symbolize the knots that are part of any marriage. 

The original painting is located in St. Peter's Church in Augsburg, Germany.   Given its busy character and ornate decorations, a contemporary, understated icon with this title would be welcomed.

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 the Bavarian painting entitled, When he returned to Argentina with a copy of that image on a postcard, he had an icon struck with this same title.  

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. The feast day of Mary, "untier of knots," falls on September 28th

More in The Way of Beauty

Untying Knots at Cana

Recall what happened at the wedding at Cana. Mary would not accept Jesus' reply-'not now.' For the married couple, the empty wine vats had to be filled immediately. Jesus needed to save the couple from disgrace now, not later. Mary played a pivotal role in untying a knotted situation at the wedding feast.

Refugees and Martyrdom in Egypt 

Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking stories of the Christian Scriptures is that of the unnamed mother of the Holy Innocents whose feast day is celebrated on December 28th. To make certain that the Child Jesus born in Bethlehem would not challenge Herod's power, the king decreed that all infants under the age of two were to be killed.  St. Matthew's Gospel quotes the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they are no more" (Ch 2).  Today a similar scene continues to be played out in Africa, the Mideast, and in other parts of the world, where mothers and their newborn infants are put to death for their faith.

Mary of Nazareth: the Loveliest Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valleys (Song of Songs 2:1)  

Whether it is in literature, architecture, iconography, painting, statuary, or in music, the burst of creativity continues among artists in singing her praises.  In fact, since the Middle Ages, about 15,000 hymns have been directed or addressed to Mary.  

In the Christian East, Mary plays an integral role in liturgical celebrations where she is mentioned several times. Her presence in the liturgy is based on the centrality of her role in the economy of redemption.  Most often addressed as Theotokos, the God-bearer, or the Mother of Life, Mary is hardly ever depicted without her son, for she is intertwined with the mystery of Jesus.  She holds the God-Man and shows him to the world.

(Column continues below)

The Christian East praises Mary as the Virgin of Motherhood as expressed by St. John in the verse:  "Woman, here is your son" (Jn 19:26).  In her divine motherhood, Mary of Nazareth gave Jesus his humanity, nurtured him, and stood beside him to the very end. She is the model of all mothers. A woman, full of grace and strength, Mary is not simply a type of ideal womanhood who is placed on a pedestal.  As the prototype of the Church, she inspires and assists us to untie knots in our own lives and in the lives of others. 

 (Addendum to last week's essay:  "Little Boy Lost" may be seen on Amazon Prime.)

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.