The Immaculate Conception by Diego Velázquez

Diego Velázquez

The Immaculate Conception, 1618–19, Oil on canvas, 135 x 101.6 cm, The National Gallery, London; Bought with the aid of The Art Fund, 1974, NG6424, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

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Celestial Signs

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And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; [and] she was with child. (Revelation 12:1)

For a moment we must look away from the art around us to gaze at the splendour of the skies above us. Diego Velázquez painted The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, c.1618, early in his career, probably for the Carmelite Convent of Our Lady in Seville. It is a study of Revelation 12; and of the night sky itself. To see what is to be seen in the passage and the painting, set aside your computer one night when you are away from any urban glare, go outside, and look up at the vast order of the heavens. What do you see there? Our forebears saw of course the majestic movements of the sun, moon and planets against the background of the stars. And more than that: they (literally) joined the dots, to see figures of destiny inscribed, on a huge scale, in the patterns of the stars.

The Greek sēmeion means a ‘sign’, sometimes a (portentous) ‘constellation’. The woman in Revelation 12 is almost certainly the constellation of the winged Pregnant Woman (in Greek, Parthenos or Virgin, our Virgo). She is ‘clothed with the sun’ in September; and each month the moon passes her feet. The twelve stars around her head may be Leo, but more probably represent the zodiac as a whole. Jupiter, king of the planets, is in Virgo once every 11–12 years; he may here be the imperial son ‘who will shepherd the nations with an iron rod’ (Revelation 12:5). The red dragon is probably the southern constellation Scorpio. The serpent of Eden (Genesis 3) is now revealed as a cosmic dragon, heir to the Greeks’ Python and Egypt’s Typhon.

The seer was ordered at Revelation 11:1 to measure the Temple on earth; at Revelation 11:19 the heavenly prototype of its innermost sanctuary is opened and the Ark of the Covenant seen. God’s home and plans are laid open to view, and are fittingly inscribed on the heavens in the great Parthenos herself, the Ark who for nine months bore God’s new Covenant in her womb.

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