Friday, May 6, 2016

The Widow’s Mite: What Is and Is Not

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The use of positive and negative space is important in composition. Positive space is taken up by solid forms. Negative space surrounds those forms. Both are important in the design of a piece. It is similar to music, in which the space between the notes – the silence – is as necessary as the notes themselves.
“Le denier de la veuve” (”The Widow’s Mite”)
James Tissot. c. 1890.
(Brooklyn Museum, N.Y.)

At first glance, James Tissot’s piece, “The Widow’s Mite,” uses positive and negative space as does any other painting. Tissot, however, divided the composition into two distinct planes, compounding the image. The rear plane contains most of the painting’s figures as positive space, while the wall serves as negative space. A foreground plane contains only the widow and her child as positive space. The surrounding air is negative space.

In the rear plane, Jesus Christ sits on the left while His disciples listen nearby. With theatrical flourish, a man drops his offering in the central vessel, his voluminous costume oozing importance. Beyond, other figures acknowledge that gift. But we know that the focus – compositionally and theologically – is not anywhere near that central figure.

Paintings on the theme of the Widow’s mite lean in the direction of a young widow – often with a child or children in tow. This is certainly to underscore her dire condition and thereby undercut the Pharisaical take on tithing.

The widow in this painting is oblivious to Christ's praise. After giving all her earthly wealth, she walks away into her world of poverty. Indeed, Tissot places her on a separate plane. She is off-center. She knows her condition. She is headed out of the composition, yet she is the center of it. All eyes, save those of self-importance, are on her and her child.

Christ sets the widow on a pedestal as the paragon of giving. And notice He does not chide her for sins causing her poverty. He does not mention conditional woe. He does not encourage her to go and be successful. He does not equate piety with plenty or suggest godliness is next to affluence.

Christ, who knows a thing or two about dying without a dime or the clothes on His back, also knows about Holy generosity and Spiritual riches beyond the imagining. Those who sorely seek after the riches of this world and ignore all our gracious Lord offers will sadly end up in the most negative of spaces.

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