Woman of Revelation (part of a diptych)
sixteenth – seventeenth century
Vatican Pinacoteca, Inv. 40550

General Description

This depiction of Madonna and Child belongs to the iconography of the Woman of Revelation, called “Woman Clothed with the Sun.” (Rev. 12:1) The body of the mother, especially her head, is surrounded by golden rays that emanate from her person. Her head is adorned with a diadem of twelve stars (six of which are not visible).  She is sitting on an elegantly drawn crescent of the moon.  Three rays emanate from the crescent highlighting the Trinity’s participation in the Incarnation, and its light-filled presence in Mary.  Thus, the Woman of Revelation is characterized by these three pictorial elements:

  •  the golden rays around her body (“Clothed with the Sun”)
  •  a crown of twelve stars
  • the moon under her feet (crescent)
  • The child in Mary’s arms holds an open scroll with the inscription from Isaiah 61:1:  “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me.”  Jesus repeated these words in the synagogue of Nazareth (Luke 4:16).  He is the Messiah;  he is the child born of the woman.  He is the one in whom the earth is re-created and blossoms anew.  His role as Messiah is symbolized in the blossoming field below the crescent.  Mary is associated with the earth from which sprang forth the Savior (Isaiah 45:8).

    This panel is part of a diptych with two compartments, painted on both sides. It is suggested that the painting may be “the work of a young painter of Madonnas, working in the late sixteenth century or shortly thereafter, who, with a technique still Byzantine in style, was looking to the West for inspiration." (Fiorin, 1995)

    The Identity of the Woman of Revelation

    We find her at the beginning of Chapter 12 in this last book of the Bible, "Now a great sign appeared in heaven; a woman, robed with the sun, standing on the moon, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.  She was pregnant and in labor, crying aloud in the pangs of childbirth.  Then a second sign appeared in the sky, there was a huge red dragon with seven heads and ten horns."  The rest of this chapter describes the war between the forces of evil (the dragon and his cohorts) and those of God (Michael and his angels) and, of course, the woman.  She was foretold at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis 3:15-16, according to traditional reading of this passage, as the one who, together with her Son, would crush the head of the serpent.  The woman represents the Church as well as the Blessed Virgin.  Both bring forth the children of God, who are to conquer evil and bring about the eventual complete triumph of God's kingdom.

    Three Pictorial Forms

    1. Art inspired by Apocalypse 12 has taken three forms.  The earliest is of narrative character, closely following the text of the book.  Here are illustrations from manuscripts of the Apocalypse and commentaries thereon that date from as early as the ninth century.  In them we see the woman pursued by the dragon, who tries to sweep her away in the torrent flowing from his mouth.  Then the woman, given wings, flees into the wilderness, and her child is snatched up to heaven.  Michael and the heavenly host hurl the dragon down to the earth.

    2. Later artists depict the woman alone, clothed with the sun (encircled by its rays) and crowned with stars.

    3. A further development shows the woman surrounded by the rays of the sun and in her arms carrying the Son she bore.

    1. The Story of the Woman and the Dragon

    The earliest narrative picture selected is from a commentary on the Apocalypse assembled by the monk Beatus of Liebeanu (d. 798).  Issued in three recensions (774, 784, 786), the work is really an anthology of texts produced by many earlier writers.  The thirty manuscripts that survive are more important for their illustrations, tracing the development of Spanish art from the ninth century through the thirteenth.  These greatly influenced Romanesque sculpture in certain locales.  Our manuscript, an example of the first recension, was prepared in 1047 for King Ferdinand and his wife, Sancha.  It is presently in the Biblioteca Nacional de España in Madrid.

    Here the artist packed into a single space the several episodes depicted in Apocalypse 12. Added to this illustration is the fiery lake of burning sulfur prepared for the evildoers (Apocalypse 19:20).

    Our second example of what we have termed pictures of a narrative character is a tapestry from the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo.  This is a work by Flemish artists, designed by Luis van Shoor and executed by the weaver Joannes Reghelbrugghe in 1698.

    The woman, with her attributes of sun, moon and stars, rises to heaven, surrounded by angel heads, while Michael with energy thrusts his long spear into one of the dragon’s long sinewy necks.

    2. The Woman Clothed with the Sun

    To introduce the theme of the Apocalyptic woman seen alone we have chosen an image from an Apocalypse known as the Illustrated Apocalypse of the Dukes of Savoy.  Here the woman, very pregnant and ready to be delivered, is pictured as sitting, rather than standing. Beneath her is a crescent moon.  She is surrounded by the large burning rays of a very brilliant sun. In the margin at the right, stands

    John, author of the book, shielding his eyes against the splendor and brightness of the vision before him.

    The Savoy Apocalypse was begun (1428-1434) by Jean Bapteur, who did the narrative pictures and Peronet Lamy, who decorated the borders. Some fifty years later (1485-1490), the work was completed by Jean Colombe at the behest of Duke Charles I.  The manuscript was handed on by inheritance from one royal or noble house to another until in 1559 it became the property of Philip II of Spain, who placed it in the Escorial, where it remains.

    An earlier image goes back to about the year 1300.  This is an illumination from a manuscript known as the Rothschild Canticles, a compilation of prayers made in the Rhineland for the use of a nun.  With hands raised, the woman stands against a checkered background of dark blue and red squares.  The crescent moon at her feet shelters a human face.  The sun, which covers the upper part of her body, has another human face at its center.  It represents Jesus Christ who is associated with the Sun.  He is the Sun of the New Day, the Sun of a New Creation, the Sun of Justice. 

    3. The Madonna Surrounded by Rays          

    In the Strahlenden (radiant) Madonnen, we have a third group of artworks inspired by Chapter 12 of the Apocalypse.  Another adaptation of the woman clothed with the sun, these are statues of the Madonna and Child surrounded by sunbursts, sometimes of great brilliance.  They became quite numerous in the Rhineland and elsewhere in Germany, beginning with the end of the fifteenth century.  Often they are found at the top of highly elaborate chandeliers raised above the main altar of a church.

    This Madonna was carved by Hans Leinberger, the most important sculptor in Bavaria between the years 1510 and 1530. The statue, dating from around 1515-1520, is in the Church of St. Martin at Landshut, center of Leinberger's activity. Originally, the image was surrounded by a carved rosary like the one encircling the Annunciation by Veit Stoss in the Church of St. Lawrence in Nürnberg.

    This very regal Madonna, clad in heavily gilt garments, dates from around 1750. In her right hand, she holds a long ornate scepter. Her left foot stands on a crescent moon, while her right crushes the head of the serpent. In a playful mood, her son kicks up with his left foot, and with his right hand reaches towards his mother's face. The image, originally from Teistungenburg, is now housed in the Städtisches Museum of Göttingen.


    Interesting Iconographical Motifs

    1) The Stars:  the twelve stars refer to the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. Mary is the summit of believers in Old (twelve tribes) and New Testament (twelve apostles).

    2) The Scroll:  the scroll in Jesus’ hand expresses wisdom. It is the synthesis of his message of Redemption. In its open form, the scroll is frequently a declaration of identity. Here it says in abbreviated form: Pn (eum) a K (yrio) u ep’eme. The Greek words mean: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.

    3) Mother of God:  there is a faded and abbreviated inscription above Mary’s head which is typical for icons of Our Lady. It reproduces the first and last letters of two words: Mother (Mr = meter) of God (Thu=Theou).

    4) The crescent of the moon is in reference to Mary’s beauty (Song of Songs 6:10): “Who is this that comes forth like the dawn, as beautiful as the moon …”

    5) Diptych is a work made of two matching parts. In art the term diptych refers to a picture as a series of pictures painted or carved on two connected panels.

    For more information:

    Consult the exhibit catalog: The Mother of God:  Art Celebrates Mary,  pp. 60-61.

    Consult our website The Mary Page: campus.udayton.edu/mary/resources/maryassump1.html  and  campus.udayton.edu/mary/resources/bible5.html

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