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The Widow’s Offering, from an Arabic manuscript of the Gospels by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib
The Widow's Mite Behind the Soldier's Might⁠—A Liberty Bond by Unknown American artist
The Widow's Mite (Le denier de la veuve) by James Tissot

Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib

The Widow’s Offering, from an Arabic manuscript of the Gospels, c.1684, Ink and pigments on laid paper, 160 x 110 mm, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, W.592.196A, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Unknown American artist

The Widow's Mite Behind the Soldier's Might⁠—A Liberty Bond, 1917, Lithograph, 250 x 750 mm, Library of Congress, Washington DC, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, LC-USZC4-835

James Tissot

The Widow's Mite (Le denier de la veuve), 1886–94, Opaque watercolour over graphite on gray wove paper, 183 x 281 mm, Brooklyn Museum; Purchased by public subscription, 00.159.211, Bridgeman Images

Obligations to Give

Comparative Commentary by

In the Gospels of Mark and Luke, the story of the widow who gives her two small copper coins to the Temple’s treasury comes immediately after Jesus’s warning about the scribes who ‘devour widows’ houses’ (Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47). This arrangement is not accidental. The scribes were closely associated with the Temple; their living came directly out of that very treasury. When the disciples watched the widow giving ‘everything she had, all she had to live on’ (Mark 12:44), Jesus’s warning was still ringing in their ears; surely they must have wondered whether this was one of the widows whose house had been devoured by the very Temple to which she humbly gave.

This is a story with an edge. It is not only about the beauty of sacrificial generosity, but a condemnation of the system that left the widow with so little to give.

Of the three artworks in this exhibition, Tissot’s watercolour is the only one to capture this sharp edge. The wealthy man, in his long robe, could represent both the ‘many rich people [who] put in large sums’ (Mark 12:41) and ‘the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes’ (v.38). The woman looks especially vulnerable in Tissot’s painting—her eyes cast down, her arm firmly cradling her son as she hurries away. Even her baby has his eyes downcast, his face partially hidden from the viewer. Tissot has painted her not as an elderly widow but a young woman with a small child to support, a particularly vulnerable position in a patriarchal society.

The woman is the primary focus in Tissot’s painting, whereas in the Arabic manuscript the dominant figure is Christ. The tiny size of the woman in the illumination in the seventeenth-century manuscript Anājīl renders her vulnerable in a different way. Like the widow in Tissot’s painting, she is off-centre—so much so that she is easy to miss at first, even though the Gospel narrative is ostensibly about her. Her tiny size may originally owe itself to artistic conventions that used scale to emphasize the comparative importance of Christ and the saints. Yet, viewed today, her smallness seems to further de-centre her; this is a story not about her but about Christ’s approval of her generous offering. The object of her generosity is not the Temple, as in the Gospel accounts, but the Church, represented by the octagonal pink baptistery. The illumination contains no hint of Jesus’s criticism of those who devour the houses of widows. No scribes or wealthy men appear in the illumination, further muting the context of condemnation. This widow represents every Christian who gives generously to the Church.

In the Liberty Bond poster, the object of generosity is neither Temple nor Church but the United States government and its treasury. The ‘widow’ is every American citizen who gives even a small amount to the war effort. The Liberty Bonds were part of Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo’s policy of ‘capitalizing patriotism’ (Kang & Rockoff 2015: 45). A well-known story of a widow’s costly generosity to a religious institution is transmuted boldly into an exhortation to give to a government’s war effort.

For first-century Jews (as in Tissot’s rendering) and later Christians (as in the Arabic manuscript’s illumination), giving to God—and to the poor—was a sacred obligation, one mandated in Scripture. (The Muslim neighbours of the Coptic Christians who produced the Arabic manuscript would have affirmed this emphasis on holy almsgiving.) The Liberty Bond poster smoothly elides the Church’s tithes with the government’s treasury: a striking example of civil religion, in which the state stands in for a religious entity.

Collectively, the three artworks demonstrate the flexibility of the widow’s story; she can represent anyone who gives humbly and sacrificially to a perceived greater good. In the case of the war poster, the greater good was an ambiguous one: even the American public needed convincing. In Mark’s account, the widow’s gesture is profoundly multi-layered: while Jesus admires her generous act, his earlier criticism of those who devour the livelihoods of widows requires us to wonder why she had so little left to give. A central obligation of Temple and Church, as well as of civil society, is to use their resources to care for those who are vulnerable, like the widow. These artworks, and the widow’s story, invite us to consider that obligation.

 

References

Kang, Sung Won, and Hugh Rockoff. 2015. ‘Capitalizing Patriotism: The Liberty Loans of World War I’, Financial History Review, 22.1: 45–78