‘The Imagination’, wrote William Blake, ‘is not a State: it is the Human Existence itself’ (Blake 2008: 32). Revelation fires the imagination of artists, and should fire our own. We can, of course, think, hope and dream only in the terms of our own age. Some terms have carried through the centuries; others have faded.
For Augustine (354–430 CE) and thence the whole Western Church, the miasma of original sin and its guilt was ineluctably transmitted through sexual generation: ‘in sin did my mother conceive me’ (Psalm 51:5). Jesus himself had of course been conceived without sexual congress; and he was wholly sinless. And Mary? Could she—must she—have been free from any such taint herself, in order to have been deemed or made worthy to be the Mother of God? In that case, she surely needed no redemption by her Son: such a claim was either outrageous or glorious.
The Spain of Diego Velázquez saw in Revelation 12 an icon of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. The doctrine became Roman Catholic dogma only in 1854; but it had been a point of fervent belief—and bitter dispute—since the Middle Ages. The Dominicans opposed it; the Franciscans extolled it. When in 1617, to try again to end the disputes, a papal Bull forbade any censure of the doctrine, there was celebration throughout Andalusia, ‘the land of Mary most Blessed’, and in its principal city Seville.
Velázquez portrayed an ancient vision brought newly to life for the Carmelites of Seville and still alive throughout Catholic Christendom to this day.
And Sandro Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity? This painting, seemingly so simple, encodes more mysteries than we have yet seen. According to its inscription, the devil will be bound in chapter 12 of Revelation. But not so. He will be bound far later in the book, at its climax (Revelation 20:2), before the 1,000 years of Christ’s first reign. The devil will then be released for the final battle, defeated, and cast forever into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:4–10). Botticelli seems to have wrenched the final battle out of its setting and brought it forward to the first Christmas.
Botticelli is following a long tradition here. Augustine himself had said that the climactic events of Revelation 20 started with the binding of the devil at Christ’s nativity, when the devil’s power was first curbed (City of God 20.7–8).
Revelation divides naturally into seven sections, which may either describe seven successive phases in the history of creation, or recapitulate the whole of that history seven times with the emphasis in each reprise moving onwards, over the series, from primordial history to the end of this present world. From Augustine onwards, no exegete could completely escape the sense of recapitulations. But it was still possible—and important—to locate one’s own time in God’s plan. The Florentine friar Savonarola declared that he was living in the fourth of the successive phases, described from Revelation 11:19.
And so back to Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity: the story told in Revelation 12 encapsulates the whole history of salvation. Here in the Nativity is Christ’s first coming and the devil’s first defeat (Revelation 20:2). Here too, in the vast timeline of history, is its turbulent fourth phase, in the Florence of 1501 in which Botticelli is painting (Revelation 11:19 onwards). And this augurs and even inaugurates the devil’s final release, defeat and eternal imprisonment (Revelation 20:4–10) in those devils running for cover
Savonarola spoke fervently of Christ coming to Florence as he had to Jerusalem. The Nativity invites us, conversely, to take our own initiative and come to Christ: to walk that winding path into the painting to join the worshippers and angels at the crib. Then indeed Christ will be with us again, the devil will be bound and mercy and truth will kiss each other. Botticelli unveiled in this Nativity on earth all the significance of the signs in heaven: the Woman and her Child, the beast from the abyss and the war in heaven. Those who have eyes to see all salvation distilled into one such scene, let them see.
There were and are many forms of vision. It is hard to know what significance—let alone what authority—to grant to any of them. William Blake’s watercolour is enthralling, but does not interpret itself. If we are not careful, it might become an art-historical diversion, just an aesthete’s delight. So too, we can reduce Revelation itself to a literary and historical jigsaw.
That would be a sad diminution, of our text and our images alike. But what are the responsible alternatives? Most of us are not visionaries, and we help nobody by pretending we might be. But our three images make an offer: that despite all our caveats we can cleanse the doors of our perception and in our imaginations discern something of the animated, personal glory of God’s Wisdom at work in our own turbulent times.
Augustine. 2008. The City of God (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers)
Blake, William. 2008. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. by David V. Erdman and Harold Bloom (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press)
12And 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; 2she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. 3And another portent appeared in heaven; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. 4His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; 5she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, 6and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which to be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.
13 And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child. 14But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. 16But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river which the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.