The Angel with the Book, from the Cloisters Apocalypse by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

The Angel with the Book, from the Cloisters Apocalypse, c.1330, Tempera, gold, silver, and ink on parchment, 308 x 230 mm, The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Cloisters Collection, 1968, 68.174, fol. 16r, www.metmuseum.org

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Thunder Silenced

Commentary by

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).

 

References

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)


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