When I was first learning to tie my shoes, bows escaped me. I could only manage knots – so I made a lot of them to tie each lace of my gym shoes together. It took the teacher quite a while to undo them for me.
Today, I might have turned for help to a growing devotion of Maria Knotenlöserin or Mary, Untier (or Undoer or loosener) of Knots. This devotion dates to 17th-century Bavaria, but has been a favorite devotion of Pope Francis for many years. He discovered it while he was a student in Germany in the 1980s and brought the devotion back with him to Argentina. It is also very popular in Brazil. And, in America, St. Joseph’s Chapel in Del Rio, Texas, has had a copy of this painting of Mary since 2003. The feast day for Maria Knotenlöserin is Sept. 28.
The original painting of Mary, Undoer of Knots, shows Mary — as the Immaculate Conception, standing on the moon with a crown of stars — crushing the head of a knotted serpent, while she unties knots from a white ribbon. Angels and the Holy Spirit as a dove hover around her. At the bottom of the painting are two small figures, commonly thought to be the archangel Raphael leading Tobias.
The story of the painting is that it was commissioned in the late 17th century by a cleric, Hieronymus Ambrosius Langenmantel, in honor of his grandfather, Wolfgang Langenmantel. The story is that Wolfgang and his wife, Sophia, had a troubled marriage. Wolfgang sought the help of a Jesuit priest. Some stories say that Wolfgang brought with him the white band that was used at his wedding ceremony to tie his arm to his bride’s. The priest, Fr. Jakob Rem, prayed to the Blessed Mother, holding up the old ribbon before an image of Mary. As he prayed, he had a vision of Mary and the ribbon in his hands became smooth and intensely white. Ultimately, the marriage was saved.
This story is why the painting’s lower figures are sometimes said to be Wolfgang and his personal guardian angel.
Since 1700, the painting of Maria Knotenlöserin, by Johan Georg Schmidtner, has hung in the Church of St. Peter in Perlach, in Augsburg, Bavaria, Germany. Mary as the Undoer of Knots traces much farther back and is originally credited to a meditation of St. Irenaeus (Bishop of Lyons, who was martyred in 202). Irenaeus’ writings drew upon the parallel made by St. Paul between Adam and Christ.
St. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, noted that, through Adam all died and that, through Christ, all shall live. Also, that sin entered the world through one man and that one man’s obedience — Christ’s — saved all men.
St. Irenaeus, in turn, made a similar comparison between Eve and Mary. He wrote that, “Eve, by her disobedience, tied the knot of disgrace for the human race; whereas Mary, by her obedience, undid it.”
Schmidtner’s painting brings this reflection into visual form.
Pope Francis, himself reflecting on this writing of Irenaeus, noted that “the ‘knot’ of disobedience, the ‘knot’ of unbelief” take away peace.
“They are dangerous,” the pope said, “since many knots can form a tangle which gets more and more painful and difficult to undo.”
However, Pope Francis added, God’s mercy acts through Mary, “the Mother who patiently and lovingly brings us to God, so that he can untangle the knots of our soul by his fatherly mercy.”
He added that we should never feel that our knots are too big for God to undo. “It is a mistake to say anything of the sort,” he stressed. “All the knots of our heart, every knot of our conscience, can be undone.”
Bishop Robert Morlino said much the same in an Oct. 31 letter to his diocese in Madison: “How many knots are created by our own failings — knots both in our relationship to God and in our relationships with one another? And isn’t it the case that it seems like these knots can sometimes seem impossible to untangle — so much so that they often result in even greater tangles and more complications? How often is the temptation there simply to leave behind a relationship or a situation which seems hopelessly tangled?”
Knotted relationships — whether with others, like a spouse, or with God — can sometimes seem as hopeless as my knotted shoelaces must have seemed to my teacher. However, as Pope Francis said, we know one thing: “nothing is impossible for God’s mercy. Even the most tangled knots are loosened by his grace.”
The devotion to Mary, Undoer of Knots, reminds us of this: that God can mend all things. We can ask her help to undo our knots, or we can go straight to God through Jesus. While he didn’t have gym shoes, I am sure he needed Mary’s help with his sandal straps, so he won’t mind our asking for her help.
Sources: madisoncatholicherald.org; Maryundoerofknots.com; whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com; “Mary Page” at Udayton.edu; “Christianity” at about.com; Theguardian.com; and Our Sunday Visitor.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press. Her newest book, “Making Sense of Saints,” will be published by OSV in spring 2014.