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