Young Catholic’s artistic tribute to Mary

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Our Lady Undoer of Knots
Detail from the painting of Our Lady Undoer of Knots created for the St Mary’s parish of Our Lady of the Rosary. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

Suzzanah Fisk understands the comfort of the Mother who, full of grace, will sit in the chaos of a life and help to sort it out.

The Sydney Catholic has just completed a portrait of Our Lady as the Undoer of Knots for the Church in Australia.

“There are a lot of knots in my life and I think having the companionship of someone who will sit with you in your mess and help you sift through it really resonated with me,” she says.

Suzzanah, 21, found a prayer card with an image of Our Lady Undoer of Knots while on a Hearts Aflame Catholic summer school in her native New Zealand. A high achiever at school, Suzannah burnt out in her final year during which she was also doing a second year university degree by correspondence.

“I was pushing too hard and I ended up failing everything,” she says.

Suzzanah Fisk
Young Catholic creatives such as artist Suzzanah Fisk (pictured) have much to offer the Church says Steven Buhagiar. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

“My parents didn’t really understand what had happened and so my relationship with my parents was not really great at the time. I was really confused. I had all these options and was tossing up these different degrees and had all these doors open, and all of a sudden I was so stuck and I didn’t know what to do next.

“I have always sort of struggled with Marian devotions but I was just really drawn to her and carried that little picture around with me for ages. I think it was the first time I really appreciated Marian devotion, and the first time I saw Our Lady as my mother. It meant a lot.”

Suzzanah left New Zealand to join Australia’s Youth Mission Team in 2016. Shortly after her mission finished she was at a bit of a loose end, and was contacted out of the blue by Steven Buhagiar, a parishioner of Our Lady of the Rosary in the western Sydney suburb of St Mary’s.

He has a great devotion to Our Lady Undoer of Knots and after coming across shrines to her in the US and Poland felt that Our Lady wanted him “to do something a bit more” about promoting it here. He saw a painting of Suzzanah’s posted by a friend on Facebook and contacted her to ask if she knew anything about Our Lady Undoer of Knots and would like to paint her image.

Eighteen months later and the completed oil painting on canvas is being stored in Steven’s family home until a shrine can be built to accommodate it at the parish.

Steven Buhagiar, Suzzanah Fisk and Father Brendan Murphy.
Steven Buhagiar, Suzzanah Fisk and Father Brendan Murphy at the site of the hoped-for shrine. PHOTO: Jazz Chalouhi

Parish priest Father Brendan Murphy SDB says that he was inspired by Pope Francis’ explanations of his favourite Marian devotion to pray to Our Lady Undoer of Knots himself and recommend it to others.

There are no firm plans as yet for the shrine’s design or construction, which will replace a small outdoor shrine on the church property, but he is confident it will become a place of prayer and pilgrimage.

“I think this will be very encouraging for many people,” Father Murphy told The Catholic Weekly.

“There’s definitely an increase in people here who are finding great help in this devotion in their own troubles. I know it sounds a bit like that line in the movie Field of Dreams, ‘If you build, it they will come’, but wherever I have seen this devotion promoted people will come to their Mother. It is especially so needed today in family life.

“This is spreading through the grassroots.”

Pope Francis has brought the Marian devotion from Germany to the whole Catholic world. PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

The ancient devotion dates back to the 17th century and a painting of the same name by Johann Melchior Georg Schmittdner, and is based on the ancient teaching by St Irenaeus that Our Lady, through her ‘yes’ in accepting to be the Mother of Christ, undid the knot of sin wrought by Eve.

Through Pope Francis, who discovered the devotion in Germany, it has spread first to South America and now the world.

Steven, who is also the Life, Marriage & Family team leader for the Broken Bay diocese, says the shrine will be a place where anyone can go and leave their knotty problems in their Mother’s expert care and that it will have a special connection to young people.

“The aim is to start talking about the fact that we will need a larger shrine to accommodate the image which can’t be kept outdoors,” he said.

“This will be possible through the work of young people. Bishop Robert Barron in the US often speaks about how evangelisation happens through the way of truth, beauty and goodness, and in these times, beauty is so important.

German icon
An icon of Mary Undoer of Knots at the Church of St Peter am Perlach in Augsburg, Germany. Pope Francis saw the image while studying in Germany and took it as his own personal devotion. PHOTO: CNS/Octavio Duran

“We need to encourage our young people in the way of beauty and give them opportunities to develop their gifts in the service of the Church, such as in art, design or photography. I gave Suzzanah a simple brief and through her artistic gifts she produced something I didn’t imagine.”

The painting depicts Our Lady sitting on a low branch of a gum tree with a simple floral crown of native white wax flowers. She is working on a ribbon, which is knotted and grey on one side and flowing white and smooth from her hands on the other.

Dark in colouring and bathed in subtle light emanating from a dove, depicting the Holy Spirit, she is wearing a white gown and blue mantle. The image is bordered by entwining branches and two waratah flowers. Working on the project was a deeply meaningful and prayerful experience for Suzzanah who didn’t use a model.

See related article: Sacred art a bridge to heaven

“It’s not realism because she is the mother of all Christians and very personal to every person, so she was done from imagination,” says Suzzanah who hopes to pursue art full-time in the future. “I didn’t give it too much detail and I didn’t want to make any really specific cultural references because Australia is quite a diverse place.

“But I wanted to make references to the Immaculate Conception and the Immaculate Heart of Our Lady and to Australia as the Land of the Holy Spirit.”

The expression on Our Lady’s face sadder than in the original by Schmittdner.

“The untying of the knots is beautiful and healing but a terrible price was paid for it,” Suzzanah explains. “Even though she’s beautiful at work I think there’s definitely a sadness in her as well.”

Steven says he is willing to give talks on Our Lady Undoer of Knots and will welcome contributions towards the building of the shrine. Contact the parish on 9623 1962 or Steven at [email protected] or 0415 600 290.