From the moment Pope Francis stepped out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, the media and the general public have been scrambling to learn more about the man from Argentina. Details are still trickling in, and one of the more intriguing concerns the pope’s devotion to the Blessed Mother under the title Our Lady Undoer of Knots.
Devotion to Our Lady Undoer of Knots, also called Our Lady Untier of Knots, is tied to a sacred image — a painting of Mary untangling a knot from a long white ribbon. The image is the work of Johann George Melchior Schmidtner, who painted it about 1700 for the Church of St. Peter am Perlach in Augsburg, Germany.
The painting depicts Mary crushing the serpent, which represents the devil. Above her head is the Holy Spirit represented as a dove, which recalls that Mary conceived the Son of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Around her head are 12 stars and under her feet is a crescent moon, both references to the vision of the Blessed Virgin described by St. John in Revelations 12:1.
History of image
The painting was commissioned by a priest who served at the church, Canon Hieronymus Ambrosius Langenmantel; Canon Langenmantel also donated the side altar over which the painting is enshrined.
Over the centuries there is a story that has been passed down to explain why Canon Langenmantel asked Schmidtner to paint such an unusual image of Our Lady. According to the story, the canon’s grandparents were quarreling so fiercely and so often that they had decided to separate. A Jesuit priest, Father Jakub Rem, visited the unhappy couple, hoping to persuade them to resolve their differences. Apparently, Father Rem was not making much progress with the Langenmantels, because at one point he turned to an image of the Blessed Mother that was in the room and prayed, “I raise up the bond of marriage, that all knots be loosed and resolved.” Mary answered the Jesuit’s prayer — the couple reconciled and remained together. The painting and altar were their grandson’s thanksgiving to Our Lady for her intercession on behalf of his family.
But there was more to the inspiration of the painting than the prayer. In Book III, Chapter 22 of his work, “Against Heresies,” St. Ireneaus writes, “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.”
In 1986, then-Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio traveled to Germany to complete his doctoral studies on the theology of Romano Guardini. While there, he visited the Church of St. Peter in Augsburg and saw the image of Our Lady Undoer of Knots.
Touched by the image, he bought a postcard of it and began invoking Mary’s help under this title. Later, as auxiliary bishop and then archbishop of Buenos Aires, he encouraged others to venerate Our Lady Undoer of Knots. The devotion spread rapidly in Argentina and then into Brazil, where there is a popular shrine with a replica of the original image. Now that Cardinal Bergoglio is Pope Francis, it is likely the devotion to the Undoer of Knots will spread across the Catholic world.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of “Patron Saints” (Our Sunday Visitor, $14.95) and “Pope Francis: The Pope from the End of the Earth” (Saint Benedict Press, $22.95).