Schmidtner was a seventeenth century artist and his work depicts the Blessed Virgin Mary standing on the moon and surrounded by angels as she patiently unties a series of knots in a long strip of material.
Above her head is a dove, the sign of the Holy Spirit, and Schmidtner uses typical Marian symbols such as twelve stars forming a crown and Mary’s foot upon the head of a snake. These are biblical references to be found in the Book of Revelation and the Book of Genesis.
The inspiration behind this picture, however, is thought to be a piece of writing by the second century theologian, St Irenaeus, rather than the bible.
In his work, Against the Heresies, St Irenaeus wrote that “the knot 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 through faith”.
This emphasis on the role of Mary in the history of salvation is meant to highlight the importance of the way God works with and through human beings. He only ever invites our co-operation; he never forces our hand.
By co-operating with God in saying “Yes” to the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, Mary assists humanity by letting God work in her and allowing the Son of God to be made flesh of her.
The story goes that the painting was commissioned and donated to a monastery in Augsburg by Hieronymus Langenmantel. His grandfather had been on the verge of separating from his wife and sought advice from a Jesuit priest. The priest prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, asking her to look upon the couple’s marriage and untie all knots and smother them. From that moment on, peace was restored to the couple and their marriage survived.
Pope Francis obviously liked this painting because he introduced devotion to Mary the Untier of Knots into Argentina and from there it has since spread to other Latin American countries.
As Cardinal Bergoglio, he even had the image engraved onto a chalice which he presented to Pope Benedict XVI on behalf of the people of Argentina.
Perhaps we can pray, in the spirit of the story behind the painting, that the Blessed Virgin Mary will intercede for all those who face difficulties in their relationships and married life: that she will untie any knots that might disrupt their lives together and bring Christ’s blessing upon their families.
Excerpt from the Prayer to Mary, untier of knots
Mary, our mother,
God has charged you with untangling the knots
in the lives of his children;
into your hands we place the ribbon of our life.
There is no knot that cannot be untangled by your fingers.
by the power of your intercession with Jesus,
your dear Son and our Redeemer,
take into your hands today this knot.
[name the knot that is troubling you]