This illumination belongs to an Arabic manuscript of the four Gospels. The text is written in naskhī, a form of Islamic calligraphy that is still used today to copy the Qur‘an. The manuscript was produced in Egypt under Ottoman rule, when Coptic Christians—members of one of the oldest continuous forms of Christianity in the world—had become a significant minority in a majority-Muslim country.
The dominant figure in the illumination is not the widow but Jesus, captured in the act of commending the woman’s generosity to two of his disciples. The disciple with the grey beard is likely to be Peter; the one peeking out from behind Peter may be the evangelist Mark, who is typically brown-haired and bearded in Byzantine art. The widow is tiny; it’s easy to miss her at first, off to the left side, dwarfed both by the church and by Jesus.
In depicting these disparities in size the illuminator was using a common artistic technique designed to magnify the importance of Christ and the Church, but the effect is to emphasize the widow’s vulnerability: just as she has so little to give in purely financial terms, she herself is so little.
The illumination reimagines the widow’s offering in the context of Christianity: the widow gives not to the Temple, but to the Church. In front of the large grey arch in the background is a small pink eight-sided building, probably a baptistery of the sort that were often positioned just outside cathedrals. Many baptisteries were eight-sided to symbolize the day of the resurrection as an ‘eighth day’—the first day of a new week, or seven days plus one—the dawn of the new creation.
The illumination thus considers the widow’s offering in a larger scriptural narrative. Here the focus is not on her generosity, but on baptism, salvation, and the arriving eschaton (God’s new age).
38 And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places 39and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41 And he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. 43And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.”
45 And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, 46“Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and love salutations in the market places and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 47who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
21 He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury; 2and he saw a poor widow put in two copper coins. 3And he said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had.”