The Widow’s Offering, from an Arabic manuscript of the Gospels by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib

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

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An Offering So Small

Commentary by

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).

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