Thousands share struggles in ‘Undoer of Knots’ grotto

When artist Meg Saligman was commissioned to create a public work of art for Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia, Sister of Mercy Mary Scullion, president and executive director of Project HOME, requested that it be based on Mary, Undoer of Knots, which is one of Pope Francis’ favorite paintings.

But Saligman didn’t want to create just another version of the German Baroque icon that has been repainted in many inspiring ways.

“I thought about what I could do that would be meaningful,” she said. “I thought about what we could give to people who could not get to the city for the pope’s visit.”

Instead of a painting, she created a 20-foot diameter igloo-like grotto that is 12 feet high. The cedar framework is being filled in with cloth ribbons inscribed with people’s personal struggles. The pieces are woven and tied to suggest a fishing net, and the structure is topped with a mast-like component.

As of early September, there were more than 30,000 knots on the grotto. Saligman expects many more by the time Pope Francis arrives.

“Knots are symbolic of struggles,” she said. “A knot separately is a knot. Together, knots can make a fishing net, and when you put all those knots together, they are struggles together. I wanted that notion of inclusivity. This a project for everyone.”

Project HOME has been helping Philadelphia’s homeless since 1989, and Sister Mary was asked to co-chair the World Meeting of Families’ Hunger and Homelessness Committee.

“We believe that we are creating a community project where we can all share our struggles and give birth to compassion among people,” said Will O’Brien, special projects coordinator for Project HOME. “We all have struggles, and in a way, we can untie each other’s knots.”

Saligman calls the installation “Untie the Knots: A Contemporary Grotto.” Retired Sisters of Mercy in Marian, Pennsylvania, are inscribing the requests.

“This gives them a way to be part of it and to help people who struggle in some way,” Saligman said.

Knots have been collected around the city and requests are submitted via the Internet at mercyandjustice.org/submit_your_knot. Volunteers will tie the cloth strips onto the framework of the grotto. At the papal Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, people will be invited to tie knots of their own, or to untie someone else’s knot as a symbolic gesture of carrying someone else’s burden.

“Those interacting with the installation will experience, through art, that a gesture of liberation for others will contribute to the liberation of themselves,” Saligman said.

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.