The illuminator of Cloisters Apocalypse exploits the capacity of visual art to present several scenes from a narrative synchronically. This image visualizes almost the whole of Revelation 10 (vv.1–9), the Vulgate text of which has been transcribed underneath. The mighty angel, adorned with cloud and rainbow (v.1), simultaneously raises his right hand to swear an oath (vv.5–6), and hands over the book so that John, standing on the far right, can consume it (vv.8–11).
Yet the dominance of the angel should not obscure the scene on the left. Above in the heavenly realm are seven dogs’ heads, framed by a cloud, symbolizing the seven thunders (v.3). Below, John sits on a rock on Patmos. He is interrupted by another angel, frustrating his attempt to write down the content of the thunders (evidently heard as intelligible sounds).
The command from heaven—‘Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down’ (v.4)—is surprising in an apocalypse. Normally, the act of sealing follows writing, to preserve a revelation until it can be made known (e.g. Daniel 12:4; 4 Ezra 14:26, 45–46). Here, by contrast, sealing up prevents the thunders’ message from being recorded. John is not told why, and it is left to the artist to hint at possibilities. Are the thunders (seven, a perfect number) symbols of God’s thundering presence (e.g. Job 37:4–5; Psalm 29:3)? Or do they represent divine judgments, like the trumpet plagues visualized on the preceding pages in Cloisters, now silenced as the mighty angel conveys a new prophecy? If the latter, then their silencing may denote a new divine strategy, revealed in the ensuing chapters. John will describe a story of a male child, born of a heavenly woman, who wins the victory, not by divine violence but by the shedding of his blood (Revelation 12).
Deuchler, Florens et al. 1971. The Cloisters Apocalypse: An Early Fourteenth-Century Manuscript in Facsimile, 2 vols (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art)
O’Hear, Natasha. 2001. Contrasting Images of the Book of Revelation in Late Medieval and Early Modern Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
10 Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. 2He had a little scroll open in his hand. And he set his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the land, 3and called out with a loud voice, like a lion roaring; when he called out, the seven thunders sounded. 4And when the seven thunders had sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.” 5And the angel whom I saw standing on sea and land lifted up his right hand to heaven 6and swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, that there should be no more delay, 7but that in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God, as he announced to his servants the prophets, should be fulfilled.
8 Then the voice which I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, saying, “Go, take the scroll which is open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” 9So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, “Take it and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.” 10And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter. 11And I was told, “You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and tongues and kings.”