Sunday Morning at St. Hugh's in Idyllwild, California
The Widow’s Mite | Art for Proper 27B
Mark 12:42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.
Commentary by Hovak Najarian
The Widow’s Mite, 1794, Engraving, Jean Marie Delattre, 1745-1840, after an oil painting by William Artaud, 1763-1823
Today, a variety of photo-mechanical methods can be used to make reproductions of paintings but none were available during the eighteenth century. Unless a painting was public art or displayed in a church, it was likely to be in a private home and the number of people seeing it was limited. Artists such as Albrecht Durer and Rembrandt van Rijn remedied this in part by producing original prints (etchings, engravings, and woodcuts) in multiples. Fine art also was made available to a wider audience by employing skilled engravers to make detailed copies of paintings; the engravings then could be printed in large numbers. Engravings did not reproduce a painting’s colors, however, and the effect was similar to using the halftone process for printing photos in a newspaper. Like a halftone, engravings were printed usually in black ink and were primarily in a range of gray tones.
Thomas Macklin, an eighteenth century London art connoisseur, founded a business selling fine quality etchings and engravings but his most ambitious project was the publication of an illustrated Bible. It was published in seven volumes and illustrated with engravings of paintings commissioned from the finest English artists of his day. “Widow’s Mite,” by Jean Marie Delattre, is an engraving of a painting made by William Artaud for the Macklin Bible.
The setting for the “Widow’s Mite” is at a time when Christ was teaching at the temple in Jerusalem (Mark 12: 38-44). He told listeners to beware of scribes whose actions promoted their self image of being important; this could be seen even in the length of their pretentious prayers. He mentioned also the various ways scribes misuse their position; among them was taking advantage of poor widows. A little later, as Christ sat across from the treasury where the wealthy came to donate great sums of money, a poor widow came and contributed only two mites. The illustration of this scene in the Macklin Bible draws our attention to the figure of Christ who is seated near center and radiant in white. The widow has a child in tow and Christ is gesturing toward her while facing his disciples and pointing out that although the widow’s contribution was minute, it was a greater sacrifice than donations from the wealthy because the rich gave out of their abundance.
The Macklin Bible, published in 1800, has been described as the largest and most impressive Bible ever printed. The seven volumes are each slightly over nineteen inches in length and fifteen inches in width. Each volume is almost three inches thick and all of them together weigh 130 lbs.
The small coin referred to in the Bible as a “mite” was actually a lepton. There was not a coin called mite in use during the time of Christ. A mite was a coin issued in Southern Netherlands in the early fifteenth century and Tyndale, in his translation of the Bible in 1525, used the term as the amount of the widow’s donation. It was used again in the King James translation of 1611. Like the lepton, a mite was almost valueless. A mite’s worth was said to be less than a cent, a penny, or a farthing. It is difficult to calculate what its value would be today. “Very little” may be the best answer.