Nicolas Maes (1634-1693)

An Old Woman Praying


Why is this woman praying? The short answer is that she is about to eat a meal and this is her effort to give thanks.

As St. Paul teaches: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." 1Ths. 5:18 And again: "Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe..." Hebr. 12:28 (NRSV).

She is old, alone, and certainly not wealthy, so what does she have to give thanks for?

Although she is clearly older, she is alive. Her face is not weathered or badly wrinkled as might come from hard labor outside. Her face has a softened hardness. The hardness comes from adversity, but it did not overwhelm her.

She is about to eat a meal, and so she thanks God for it. She knows that she could have much less, even nothing.

The surroundings are not luxurious, palatial, or opulent. However, she is not the poorest of the poor, not homeless.

She is alone. The table does not indicate that others are usually present. If she has no family or friends to share with her meal with why is she giving thanks? Do you think she is really alone? Could there be an unseen presence that she can feel, or at least have faith in?

It is a scene painted long ago, and yet common today, anywhere. I can think of my Great-Aunt, now dead, sitting down to such a meal alone in an old house. Her parents, husband, and child had all died before her, but she still would give thanks. She would not blame God for past misfortune but thank him for his presence and help.


"Light and brightness are equated with superior spirit and intelligence, with divinity and holiness... In the bible light is used as a symbol of goodness and wisdom, it is a positive force, while darkness is the personification of evil and ignorance, a negative force." G. Sill, A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art, Simon & Schuster (1996) p. 30.

The use of light here is dramatic. Around her, behind her, there is darkness. However, the light pours down on her. She is the focus of that light which is God present listening. The negative forces in her life are held at bay. The light also represents her wisdom. The young do not always seem to know they need God, but the old usually realize from hard personal experience that they are not in charge of the world, or even their own lives. They know what Job learned, that you can do everything right and still loose everything. The old know they need God.



Some of the items on the table carry forward the idea of God present. The food on the flat dish looks like a salmon steak. Fish have long been a Christian symbol. "As the Greek word for a fish, icthus, contained the initials of the names and titles of Christ, Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Saviour, the figure of a fish was one of the earliest Christian symbols..." The Calendar of the Prayer-Book, Illustrated, With an Appendix of the Chief Christian Emblems, published at Oxford, 1909. It may also refer to the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish.

"When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." And he said, "Bring them here to me." Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full." Matt. 14:14-20. NRSV.

If the artist wants us to remember this passage from scripture, he may be saying that She is doing what Jesus did, to bless and give thanks. Her prayer may reflect a similar miracle, that God daily multiplies her food so that she has enough. Not by miraculous means, perhaps, but by the ordinary miracle that makes it possible for her to daily have enough.

She has bread on the table, which was also featured at the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, but bread has special meaning. "While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.'" Matt. 26:26. And again in Luke: "Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.'" Luke 22:19. When she gives thanks for her meal and blesses it, as Jesus did, she cannot create the Body of the Lord in the Eucharist, but she can use her action to remember him, what he did, and what he promised.

"Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever." John 6:47-58.

knifeHaving a knife on the table is perfectly natural. She will want to cut the bread and fish. However, it has deeper meaning. It is associated with death and sacrifice.* The knife was in Abraham's hand when he was about to sacrifice his son. God the Father stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son, but God did not stop the sacrifice of His own Son. The knife on the table recalls that sacrifice remembered in Eucharist. The knife's shadow connect to the shadow and darkness under the table and around the woman. It would thus call to mind that her death is coming.

The red cylinder on the window sill seems to be an hourglass. This would fit closely with the knife on the table. The hourglass which marks the passing of time signifies the brevity of life.* The book can represent the bible, the word of God. An open book means the dissemination of wisdom and truth through knowledge.* The object in front of it could be a funnel, but if so why is it on a windowsill? Instead, it could be a bell, which would fit with the book as a bible. The bell calls the faithful to worship; it is the voice of God.*

The keys are not those of St. Peter. Perhaps here they are saying that the key to her life is faith and prayer. Perhaps they are saying that the key to our lives are the words of God and the voice of God (Bible and bell). The key to life is the bread of life. The key to this woman's life and wisdom is her knowledge and participation in all of this.

*G. Sill, A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art, Simon & Schuster (1996).

The image of the Old Woman Praying is displayed here for non-profit religious and educational purposes only. No other us is intended or permitted. The text is by the Rev. Roger J. Smith, unless attributed to someone else, and is presented "as is". ©1997, Roger J. Smith.

"The Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved."

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