Revelation 12:1–6, 13–17
The Woman and the Dragon
Mercy and Truth are Met Together
Commentary by Robin Griffith-Jones
She brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron (Revelation 12:5)
Sandro Botticelli’s The Mystic Nativity is a patently joyous painting. From an opening in heaven, golden as the sun, a circle of twelve dancing angels links heaven and earth. These—and all the painting’s angels—wear white, green, or red, for the cardinal virtues faith, hope, and love. Between them they hold olive branches, symbols of mercy and of peace. On each branch flutters a ribbon with a Latin or Italian inscription in praise of the Virgin Mary: ‘Sanctuary beyond words’, ‘Mother of God’, ‘Virgin of Virgins’, ‘Wondrous Bride of God the Father’, ‘Virgin Mother’, ‘Hope of Sinners’, ‘Queen over All’, ‘Only Queen of the World’. From the branches hang small crowns.
In the central register, an enormous Mary kneels before the infant Jesus. Beside them sits Joseph, elderly and balding. He might almost be asleep, for he was a man, like his namesake in the Old Testament, who dreamed dreams (Matthew 1:20, 2:13). Behind the stable and a darkly mysterious wood, the Sun of Righteousness is about to rise. On each side of the Holy Family, more olive-bearing angels present visitors: the shepherds certainly, and perhaps the Magi. The olive on the left bears another banderole, ‘Behold the lamb of God’.
In the foreground register three angels and three humans embrace. Once more the angels’ ribbons speak for them: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to everyone of good will’ (Luke 2:14). Scurrying away into crevices from this wonderful scene is an assortment of tiny devils, their evil aims defeated.
‘Mercy and truth are met together’, says the psalmist; ‘righteousness and peace have kissed each other’ (Psalm 85:10). It would be hard to envision a lovelier depiction of the joy of heaven to earth come down.
So far, so good. But the scene is the Nativity. Why is this picture not nestling among the Christmas commentaries?
Well, it would be, if Botticelli himself had not written a cryptic inscription along the painting’s top. We come back to his inscription in the next commentary. For the moment we can simply relish his disclosure of joy in heaven and on earth.
Commentary by Robin Griffith-Jones
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.
The Study of Archangels
Commentary by Robin Griffith-Jones
And another portent appeared in heaven; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. (Revelation 12:3–4)
What an extraordinary image. In a large watercolour (437 x 348 mm), William Blake has evoked a vast and terrifying monster, threatening the radiant Woman with dire physical—and sexual—violence. There is no sign of her escape, promised in Revelation 12:6. She lies supine, utterly vulnerable, stars scattered around her.
Blake created an elaborate mythology of his own. In conventional religion of ‘the primeval priest’s assum’d power’ (Blake 2008: 70), in a dominant rationalism, in the political and economic structures in England, he saw a systemic oppression of soul and body together. His demiurge Urizen—a play on ‘Your Reason’—reduced the world both to measured definition and to chains.
Blake welcomed the American and French revolutions and the energy which they represented and released. He famously wrote of Milton in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it. (Blake 2008: 35)
Even in our watercolour the towering dragon—figure of the world’s most ruthless oppressors—has a majestic power that fascinates as much as it repels.
Blake was a visionary, for whom soul and body cohered; but for him there was still an Eternity beyond normal sight, to which ‘in the regions of my Imagination’ both Blake and all those who took his lead had access (Blake 1956: 43). He wrote to John Flaxman in 1800:
In my brain are studies & Chambers fill’d with books and pictures of old, which I wrote & painted in ages of Eternity before my mortal life; & those works are the delight & Study of Archangels. (Blake 1956: 51)
Blake did not set out just to illustrate Revelation, but to reveal its angelic mysteries. He demands a visceral response to this terrible scene. The cool analysis of ancient and discarded myths, indispensable to modern scholarship, would be for Blake the work of Urizen. Revelation mattered to Blake because it revealed the power structures of the present world.
Blake, William. 1956. The Letters of William Blake, ed. by Geoffrey Keynes (New York: Macmillan)
———. 2008. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. by David V. Erdman and Harold Bloom (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press)
Sandro Botticelli :
'Mystic Nativity', 1500 , Oil on canvas
Diego Velázquez :
The Immaculate Conception, 1618–19 , Oil on canvas
William Blake :
The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun (Rev 12:1–4), c.1803–05 , Black ink and watercolour over traces of graphite and incised lines
‘Immortal Eyes and Eternal Worlds’
Commentary by Robin Griffith-Jones
‘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)