Devotional images of the Blessed Mother tend not to be particularly fine works of art, but are cherished because they are reminders of the Mother of Jesus, to whom Christians turn for her intercessory help. Artistically there are few notable examples of fine art that inform popular piety. In fact finer depictions of Mary in art are now appreciated more for aesthetic qualities rather than as aids to devotion. Examples of fine art influencing popular piety tend to be more local, such as the image of Mary, Salus Populi Romani in Italy. Rarely does a devotional image of fine artistry find its way to a more global recognition although the icon of Mary, Mother of Perpetual Help, the tilma on which the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe appears, and Murillo’s Immaculate Conception, are recognized throughout the world.
Pope Francis has drawn the attention of the world to an image of Mary that is an example of fine art. The painting of Mary, Untier of Knots was painted by Baroque era artist, Johann Georg Schmidtner c. 1700. The painting depicts Mary looking similar to other images of her under the title Immaculate Conception, with the exception that here she is busy untying ribbon.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio first saw the painting of Mary Untier of Knots in Augsburg during his days studying in Germany. He returned to Argentina and, there, supported the spread of the image which is now known far beyond Germany or South America. The Church of San José del Talar in Buenos Aires houses a copy of the painting and has become a popular pilgrimage site. During Pope Francis trip to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families a grotto of ribbons outside the Archdiocesan Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter & Paul housed a replica of the Holy Father’s favorite painting of Mary. The ribbons were covered with written prayer petitions.
The origins of the content, of Our Lady untying knots, is not generic. While it may be common for children to run to their mothers to undo shoelaces or tangled rosaries, the origin of this particular image is more specific. This specificity at this juncture in history, during a Synod on the Family and in a time of weakened perseverance in marriage, makes it surprising that the paintings origins are not more widely known or written about.
The painting was commissioned as an offering of thanksgiving to God, in honor of the Blessed Mother for having saved a marriage that was on the rocks. The story has it that Ambrosius Langenmantel, a priest, donated the painting to a local Church. The painting commemorates the healing of his grandparents’ marriage. The Blessed Mother is symbolically shown to be renewing their bonds by smoothing out ribbon. Ambrosius’s grandfather Wolfgang Langenmantel sought out the famed Jesuit spiritual director Jakob Rem as he worried his marriage to his wife Sophia may be coming to an end. Rem was known to be devoted to the Blessed Mother. The essential elements of the various renditions of the story agree that Rem prayed that the marriage bond of Wolfgang and Sophia would be smoothed out through the intercession of the Blessed Mother. Their marriage held together.
The Lord Jesus gave prominence to the intercession of his mother in the context of a married couple in need, at Cana of Galilee. The vocation of the married couple is to be an icon of Christ loving his Church and helping her to flourish.
Mary Untier of Knots, pray for the Synod on the Family and for all married couples.