This painting (part of a triptych for All Saints Church in Concord NH, containing imagery from the book of the Apocalypse, also called the book of Revelation), is based on visions recorded in chapter 12:
“And a great sign appeared in the sky: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of 12 stars. She was pregnant.… And another sign appeared in the sky: a great red dragon. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them down to earth… Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon…”
The writer of the apocalypse weaves together a multi-leveled symbolic drama, using images drawn from the natural world, stories and myths of the ancient Near East, the rituals of the temple in Jerusalem, the teachings and the life of Jesus and his followers, the Christian liturgy, and visions given to him by an angel. Some of the later Christian writers, reflecting on the many layers of symbolism in the New Testament writings, came up with a four-story structure of symbolism, which also gave a kind of map of the layers of reality and of history:
Drawing on to the story of human history in the Bible, these thinkers saw a kind of evolutionary development of humanity. From the level of Nature, humans added Culture, ritual, myth. Jesus channeled the gift of the Spirit (Grace and divine love) into human history. The gift of grace is a seed meant to work the transformation of humans and the entire universe into a new heavens and earth where “God will be all in all” (Glory).
1. Nature: cosmic and astrological level
Johns apocalypse follows in it’s imagery the Jewish temple liturgy through the year, which itself follows the course of the sun through the signs of the zodiac. In chapter 12 John looks up into the sky and sees ‘the woman clothed with the sun”, i.e., the sun in the constellation of the virgin (which is more or less September in our calendar). “The moon is at her feet”, which signifies the new moon, which for the Jews, and other peoples, meant the beginning of a new month and a time of special ritual significance and power.
This is the time of “the Feast of Trumpets” and “the Day of Atonement”: the Angels sound trumpets, the old world is cleansed for a new world to be born.
2. Culture and Myth
In ancient myth the Woman and the Serpent were two aspects of the same Great Mother. When humans began to wonder about the source from whence all things came and were born, the most obvious image of origin, beginning, source of life, was a mother. The origin of humans and animals was the mother, so the Source of all things was the Great Mother. The first ‘temples’ were caves, where humans would re-enter the womb of the Great Mother, the source of life. The Great Mother is Nature, which gives us birth, but also swallows and devours us. Mother Holle, who is an image of Nature in fairy tales, appears as an old woman with large frightening teeth.
The birthing, nourishing, creative aspect of Nature came to be more represented as a Woman. The devouring, swallowing, dark, unconscious side of Nature appeared as a Serpent or Dragon. Humans and human consciousness arise out of, and are supported by, the evolutionary processes of Nature and matter. But Nature, in her overpowering instincts, her unconscious feeding of one thing on another, even in her motherly lulling to sleep and death, opposes and threatens the emerging light of consciousness, represented by the newborn Divine Child.
The evolution of consciousness seems both to emerge from within Nature, as well as to be guided by a spiritual pressure on the world from higher Consciousnesses or Angels. So the movement forward of consciousness within and out from Nature is experienced both as a birth and a battle. The evolutionary process moves towards greater consciousness within Nature and within the material universe itself; it also involves an intense struggle, to not get pulled back into and swallowed by the dark chaos of matter and energy.
The visionary of the Apocalypse sees cosmic and mythic archetypes at play in the life of Jesus. The birth of Jesus from Mary was foretold in the visions of the prophets, and seen in the stars by the Magi. King Herod, the Edomite (Edom means ‘red’ in Hebrew), the Red Dragon, tried to kill the Messiah, slaughtering innocent children in fear of a child who might later rise up and dethrone his dynasty.
“And Herod, when he saw that he was mocked by the Magi, was greatly enraged, and he sent and killed all the boys of Bethlehem and of all of its borders, from two years old and under, according to the time he had searched out from the Magi.” Matthew ch. 2, v. 16
In the Christian view, the Serpent, the opposing power, is not Nature or matter or the feminine, but a warped spiritual Intelligence that tries to oppose the evolution and return of matter to God in and through divinized humanity.
Nature and matter and the feminine themselves dwell in heaven, and heaven in them. They are one with the Divine in the Incarnation (which means “into-flesh”).Matter, the body, food, marriage, birth and death, are sacraments, i.e., symbols and containers of divine presence and transforming power. The Divine-Human Child realizes the destiny of being a human: to be the heart of the Universe, and the bridge uniting Angels, humans and Nature in God.