Let’s Talk About Millstones

In my last blog, I quoted a section of Matthew 18, which said the following:


Matthew 18

6 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of things that cause sin! Such things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 8 If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into eternal fire.

Which begs the question… what is a millstone?

Well! A millstone is what was used, in Jesus’s time, to grind grain up into flour. Nowadays, so much technology is used that we can feel far removed from the production of food. But, back in those days, it was essential to understand how food was made so that you could make it. In fact, it was so important that parents even taught stories to their children to demonstrate the whole process of growing food.

For instance! Do you remember a little tale called The Little Red Hen?

Well! As the Little Red Hen taught us, first you plant the wheat seed, then grow the grain, then you harvest the wheat, then you thresh the wheat, then you take the wheat to the mill.

…a very informative fairy tale, don’t you think?

Of course, the Little Red Hen took the wheat to the mill, and for good reason. While it is possible for anybody — even a Little Red Hen! — to plant, grow, harvest, and thresh the wheat, not everybody had a millstone. That was a specialized task that a miller would undertake. So even the industrious hen needed the miller’s help to grind the wheat! And for good reason: that millstone is not something that everyone could have.

Here is the sort of millstone that would be around during the time of Jesus:

Donkey with a Millstone. Unknown photographer.  Via IllustratedPrayer.com
Donkey with a Millstone. Unknown photographer.

And yes. That millstone is about as big as that donkey.

So, when Jesus said this to the people, they would have been startled and perhaps even horrified by the imagery. This is not just someone being weighted down with a couple of big rocks and being thrown into water. After all, if you were weighted down with rocks and thrown in the water, you could feasibly escape.

No. This is a lot worse.

If you put a millstone around your neck, it is very probable that the weight of the millstone would break your neck first, if not kill you. If it didn’t kill you then, it would probably paralyze you. And, then, when you were thrown into the depths of the ocean, you would drown, paralyzed and unable to do anything. There is no chance of escape. There is not even a chance of rescue.

You are lost forever.

This is the sort of thing that horror movies are made about: the horror of certain death and of not being able to escape.

This is a nightmare.

And yet, Jesus says that it would be better for the person to have this happen to him than to cause one of the little ones to sin. (We’ll talk about what that phrase means in another blog post, because that’s important, but for now let’s just say that the one who causes the sin is the one who is guilty of mortal sin, whereas the one who is being forced to sin is a victim. Again, more on that in a later blog post.)

So, upon finding out what a millstone was and realizing how shocking of an image it actually is, I thought to myself, “I wonder if there are any depictions of this millstone in religious art.”

And, actually… there are. In fact, there is quite a chilling piece that I would like to share! It’s definitely not a religious devotional art or an icon, though it definitely has religious symbolism everywhere. But, though it is not a devotional piece, it is a poignant warning that, sooner or later, we are all going to die. And it is probably going to come as a surprise to us when we actually do die. So we better prepare for it now.

Or, as they say in Latin, Memento mori.

Take a look at it… and don’t forget to click on it for a closer look! There’s a lot to see…

The Triumph of Death, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, c. 1562-63. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Via IllustratedPrayer.com
The Triumph of Death, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, c. 1562-63. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

If the name of the artist looks familiar, I’ve featured artwork from his son and his other son. And indeed, all three paintings have definite similarities — they are each rich with detail and contain lots of little vignettes within the painting.

But this one is more… morbid, if you could say that.

There is a lot of things going on in this painting. First, the color tones are a deep red, which indicate a hellish scene, as if the depths of hell have come out in the form of a skeleton army.

There’s a skeleton plundering riches in the sight of an ailing king. You can see a cardinal, a skeleton holding onto him and wearing a red galero. There’s an army of skeletons coming to destroy people. There are people, who were in the middle of a backgammon game (which was a common gambling game back then) fleeing for their lives. There are people being caught in a net and forced into the water. There are hordes of people being shepherded by a skeleton riding a horse into a huge coffin, which is swarmed by a whole skeleton army. You can even see in the distance someone praying just before he is executed. And yet, even that leaves little hope — after all, back in these times, it was common to view execution scenes and a common sight for the prisoners to pray just before being executed. And there must have been a thought that sometimes, these prayers were too little, too late.

And yes, there is even someone with a millstone on his neck.

Here’s a detail of that part of the painting:

The Triumph of Death: Detail of the Millstone, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, c. 1562-63. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Via IllustratedPrayer.com
The Triumph of Death: detail of the Millstone, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, c. 1562-63. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

A skeleton band of trumpeters trumpeting out the last judgment takes this man in pink and hoists him into the deep. Whereas other people are simply being thrown or pushed into the water by skeletons who are taking too much pleasure in the task, the man with the millstone around his neck seems to be a form of divine retribution that the skeletons, who are trumpeting the call presumably of the Last Judgment, have been sent out to do.

Basically: you really don’t want to be that guy.

If this artwork is a little bit too macabre then… well. It’s supposed to be. Because it should remind us of the inevitability of death. It should serve as a reminder that we must repent, and we must do it now. And it should be a reminder that there is no room for sin in our lives.

Let me repeat this:

We must repent.

There should be no room for sins in our lives.

And this is especially true for our leaders — especially our religious leaders. Queen Isabel Farnesio, who ruled Spain for a time, even hung this painting in one of her La Granja palace, where she spent the last part of her life.

We need leaders who have a long vision for things and help direct us to become and do things that ultimately better ourselves — not hurt ourselves. In fact, we should never have leaders who hurt us. Instead, we need leaders who can boldly proclaim the truth and live the truth. We need these leaders to be just as committed to avoiding sin for themselves as they are committed to lead us away from sins, as the path to sin leads only to death and destruction.

And, in the grand scheme of things, we need leaders — especially our religious leaders! — to help us get to Heaven.

Because, in the end, that is the only thing that matters.

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of four, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer.

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