I am a long-time fan of Pope Francis. Several years ago, when I read that one of his favorite paintings was hanging in a church in Augsburg, Bavaria, I was curious. The painting is entitled Mary Undoer of Knots by Baroque painter Schmidtner (1625-1707). Now I’m not a huge fan of Baroque art, but I was moved by the symbolism in this painting and wondered how it came to be. Apparently, Schmidtner got the idea from the work of 2nd century St. Irenaeus who said, “The knots of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the Virgin Mary set free in Faith.”
Reading the history of the painting was interesting, but to this day, when I look at the image (actually, a contemporary retablo of Mary the Undoer hanging in my house) I can’t stop thinking about knots. Is there anything more frustrating than knotted shoestrings or necklace chains or strings of Christmas lights? It takes time and patience to work on a knot and is it not the most infuriating thing that usually when you have one to undo, you don’t have either the time or patience?
But the knots that most often come to mind are the ones in my life—in all our lives. We humans do get so tied up in knots! We get tied up in being right, in losing control, family drama, gaining weight, needing to rest, rising taxes, in getting old, appearing immature, climate change, having to work, in trying to be perfect—you name it, we tie ourselves up about it.
As a protestant, I don’t practice the Catholic act of veneration. However, I am deeply touched by the beautiful image of Mary Undoer of Knots. I know that knots of whatever sort keep us from moving forward and sooner or later need to be dealt with. But looking at the painting I feel hopeful. Mary accepted help from the angels as she worked at her knots—and so must I, so must we.
Holy Mother, undoer of knots,
may the unknotted cords of your wisdom
free me from the knotted confusions of my mind,
so that I am rendered harmless and move in the world
with clarity of mind and kindness of heart.
(Prayer on the back of my Our Lady Undoer of Knots retablo by Lynn Garlick Retablos)