By Lori Hadacek Chaplin
Pope Francis's favorite Marian image
Though only one person, the Virgin Mary has many titles honoring her: Seat of Wisdom, Mystical Rose, Morning Star, Queen of Angels — to name some mentioned in the Litany of Loreto. One name given to Mary that may not sound so familiar is Mary Undoer of Knots.
The reference to the Virgin Mary as the “Undoer” or “Untier of Knots” is not new; it heralds back to St. Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons who is thought to have died in the year 202. Pondering St. Paul’s parallel between Adam and Christ in his book “Adversus Haereses,” or “Against Heresies,” the bishop compared Eve and the Virgin Mary, saying:
“Eve, by her disobedience, tied the knot of disgrace for the human race; whereas Mary, by her obedience, undid it.…For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the Virgin Mary set free through faith.”
St. Irenaeus’ meditation on Mary untying the knots of sin remained mostly dormant until the 1700s when the devotion to Mary Undoer of Knots was fueled by an oil painting of the Virgin Mary (recently alleged to be painted by a German artist named Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner) which was given to the church of St. Peter in Perlach, located in Augsburg, Germany, near Munich — and is still housed there today.
The Baroque-style painting depicts the Virgin richly clad in a crimson gown and draped with a blue mantle; she is loosening knots in a white ribbon with the collaboration of two angels — and with spiritual guidance from the Holy Spirit who hovers above her head in the form of a dove. The knots of the ribbon, symbolic of the divisions created in our lives, are repeated in the knotted serpent’s body. The Virgin stands calmly crushing the head of the serpent, the diabolical creator of knots.
That we know of, nothing was written to measure the popularity of the devotion to Mary Undoer of Knots (Maria Knotenlöserin) in Germany during the 1700s and later. The devotion appears to have not been well known.
Recent revival of Mary Undoer of Knots began in Brazil in 1999 when husband and wife Denis and Dr. Suzel Frem Bourgerie brought the devotion to the region. A year earlier, Dr. Bourgerie published a booklet titled “Mary Undoer of Knots Novena,” which did much to propagate the devotion. The booklet, containing the devotion’s history, explanation of the artwork and a novena with nihil obstat and imprimatur, has been printed in 19 languages and also in Braille. More than 1.1 million copies have been distributed, according to the website maryundoerofknots.com where the booklets are sold.
The husband and wife were so touched after meditating before the Mary Undoer of Knots painting in Germany that they later got permission from the Archdiocese of Campinas to build a small church in Brazil called Mary Gate of Heaven — where a copy of Mary Undoer of Knots is enthroned. The devotion caught on quickly. The Bourgeries then founded the National Sanctuary of Mary Undoer of Knots. In 2006, the shrine was inaugurated; both churches are on the same street, one in front of another, in Campinas, Brazil.
The beauty of Mary Undoer of Knots is that if we ask her — allow her — she will uncoil the knots that prevent peace in our lives.
In Dr. Bourgerie’s booklet she writes, “Ah, the knots of our life! How they suffocate the soul, beat us down, betray the heart’s joy and even the will to continue living.” She goes on to say: “The Virgin Mary does not want this to continue anymore in your life. She comes to you today for you to give her all these snarls because she will undo them one by one.”
National Sanctuary of Mary Undoer of Knots, in Campinas, Brazil, is served by 15 priests and seats some 3,000 faithful.
The official website in the United States, maryundoerofknots.com, is assigned by the national sanctuary to promote the devotion. Proceeds from the sale of the Mary Undoer of Knots Novena booklet support the sanctuary and other works of mercy.
In 2003, St. Joseph’s Parish in Del Rio, Texas, claimed to be the first church in the United States to have enthroned a picture of Undoer of Knots.
At first glance, “Mary Undoer of Knots” seems a strange title for the Virgin Mary. We usually think of Mary associated with a place: Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Knock, to name some.
With this particular devotion, Mary is associated with an act — the act of undoing knots. Those knots signify anything that keeps us from happiness — “knots of discord in your family, lack of understanding between parents and children, disrespect, violence; the knots of deep hurts between husband and wife, the absence of peace and joy in the home,” says Bourgerie.
While many of the titles given to the Blessed Virgin Mary commonly refer to locations, devotions, shrines or apparitions, other names simply derive their origins from Mary’s special dignity and place of honor as the mother of Our Lord.
The Baker Woman
Named so because she is the spiritual oven in which Christ the living bread was formed, born and offered to us in the Eucharist.
Star of the Sea
Taken from the hymn Ave Maria Stella (“Hail, Star of the Sea”), in which Mary guides travelers to port.
Gate of Heaven
St. Ambrose, Father and Doctor of the Church, wrote: “Who is the Gate if not Mary? Mary is the Gate through which Christ entered this world!”
Mary, the queen of saints, is compared to the rose, the queen of flowers, which in ancient times was a symbol of mystery.
She is seen as the star that ushers in the sun and the light of day — Christ, the “Sun of Justice.”
Tower of Ivory
Like a tower defending against one’s enemy, Mary provides protection from the devil. She is likened to ivory because her soul is beautiful and pure.
Sources: “Encyclopedia of Mary” by Monica and Bill Dodds (OSV, $24.95) and www.AnnBall.com.
Lori Hadacek Chaplin writes from Iowa.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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