The woman and the dragon in St. John’s Apocalypse

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William Blake, “The Great Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun” (c. 1805)

In his commentary on the twelfth chapter of Revelation, Anglican theologian Joseph Mangina highlights the apocalyptic showdown between the dragon, otherwise known as Satan, and two antagonists who eventually defeat him: first, the woman and her offspring, “being at once Israel, Daughter Zion, Mary/the new Eve, and the church”; second, Michael and his angels, who are “both a reality in themselves and a figure for Jesus and his followers.” I am fascinated by how Mangina makes sense of this imagery:

How literally should we take this dragon/serpent imagery? When John says the dragon is the one who is “called the devil and Satan,” he betrays an awareness that there is no single, definitive way of representing this surd factor. We should bear this in mind as we examine other representations of evil in the Apocalypse, like the beasts from the land and the sea (Rev. 13) or the “three unclean spirits like frogs” (16:13). Of course all this language is imaginative, metaphorical, and deeply inadequate in many ways. On the other hand, this does not mean that we could dispense with the metaphors in favor of some literal form of language. Both God and the devil outrun our ability to depict them, although for opposite reasons. God is too real for our minds to encompass, while the devil is an ontological negative, always hovering at the border of unreality, although his effects in our world are real enough

But why should we dwell on this nasty creature, when the vision opens on a note of such loveliness and splendor? John sees “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” She is the first in a series of powerful female figures who dominate the later chapters of the Apocalypse: the Great Whore in Rev. 17 (the antithesis of the woman here) and the bride of the Lamb in Rev. 21 (who is in some ways the woman’s double). The woman in our passage is resplendent. Her attire distantly recalls the description of the Shulamite maiden in the Song of Songs: “Who is this that looks forth like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army with banners?” (Song 6:10). Albrecht Dürer depicts the woman as a pretty German Madonna, standing demurely with her hands clasped in prayer [see below]. William Blake’s watercolor does a much better job of capturing the woman’s essential radiance, beauty, and power. He depicts her in high romantic style, with arms outstretched and golden wings spread to fly at the very moment of the dragon’s attack [see above]

Yet perhaps Blake is just a touch too romantic. This woman is no sun goddess. Her garment of light is a gift, bestowed by the one whose face is “like the sun shining in full strength” (Rev. 1:16; cf. 10:1). “This woman is clothed with the sun,” writes Heinrich Bullinger, because the “scripture calleth Christ the sun of righteousness, and light of life. Saint Paul commandeth the church to put on Christ. He therefore is the light, the life and righteousness of the church: by Christ is covered the nakedness of the church: Christ is the ornament and beauty of the church, through him it shineth in the world.” Bullinger takes the moon symbol to mean that “all courses and alterations of times, and what so ever is mutable and corruptible in this world, all affections also and infirmities, the church treadeth under her feet.” 

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Albrecht Dürer, “The Woman Clothed with the Sun and the Seven-headed Dragon” (1497-98)

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