Thursday, February 17, 2022

"The Woman and the Dragon" from Revelation 12: the Frame and Final Details

So what about the final details?  As with many large projects, there were some alterations to the original "plan".  I think it is vitally important to listen to the piece as you stitch it and what it needs.  As I stitched this piece, my original plan had been to frame it with a double matte of gold and ivory as I have done many of my pieces.  This plan just did not feel "right".  It felt like a story this grand, stitched in gold and velvets and silk demanded something a bit more.  In this blog post, I'll talk about the "more".  

 The Stitched Frame:

The stitched frame was not part of the original sketch; however, as I stitched this panel, it felt obvious to me that it needed something to quite literally frame it in a rather grand way—a way that just matting it would not be able to do.  My solution was a goldwork frame.  This was also influenced by my Retable Sampler that I created for the Art Institute of Chicago (based on their Burgo de Osma Retable and Altar Frontal) and the many pieces of Opus Anglicanum that I have had the privilege of studying and seeing in person.  Usually, the frames in the Opus Anglicanum pieces are fairly ornate and are comprised of either intertwining branches or architectural columned archways. In many pieces in the form of an arcade of arches forming separate frames for each Saint or scene (ex- V&A #8128 to B1863). These examples felt very important as I reinterpreted this Apocalypse scene in stitch, especially as some of my reference points for the embroidery were contemporary pieces to the referenced manuscripts.

I did not want to lose the feel of the manuscripts though to the more ornate interpretations of the medieval embroidery.  In the Douce Apocalypse, there are two main framing styles utilized for the illustrations.  Either a simple interior color with a narrow gold outline on either side or a thinnish border of waves of two colors, usually blue and red, outlined in gold.  For the folios where the Woman and the Dragon’s story unfolds, the borders are blue and red waved with gold outline (on the interior and exterior edge) with one possible exception as folio 34r looks like it may be green and red.  I need to mention here that all my observation of the manuscripts have been via the digital and printed sources as I have not been able to see them in person.  So it may be an exception in a green, it may be a blue that appears greenish on screen and reprinted.

The Trinity Apocalypse has a border too but it is a very simple outline of gold.  It is interesting that they balance the more decorative and patterned treatments of the background and motifs with the simple border.  The use of gold makes it feel weighted to stand up to the renderings that it contains.  The Douce Apocalypse with its bareness of background can withstand a slightly wider and more ornate border.  I wanted to reference them both, but I could not figure out how just by sketching.  I decided to stitch some samples to work out what created the best and most appropriate stitched effect. Most especially, I wanted to make sure that both the width and decoration of the border did not detract from the embroidered panel itself.  

Most of the options that I explored are variations of couched gilt passing and gilt pearl purl edging.  There is also some cutwork and s-ing I tried too, though those options quickly identified themselves as not the right choice for this project.  The cutwork and s-ing felt too static and overly formal for this piece.  Something about couching the gilt passing with the colored silks produced the level of formality needed for the composition and the impression of fluidity that kept it from feeling stodgy.  

All of these samples began with one layer of felt.  A couple of them also experimented with adding multiple layers of felt or soft string too.  I wanted to experiment with building physical dimension versus creating implied dimension.   The red is one of the reds I used in the Dragon and the blue is the mid-tone Marian blue I used in the Woman's gown.  

Here I am making sure the width of the chosen frame sample felt correct with the whole composition. As you may be able to see, I adjusted the width as it felt a bit too wide.  

I started with the felt.  I chose to use a couple layers to create a subtle, even bevel to it.  I also chose to miter all the corners instead of turning them.  This you can see in the felt here, but I also mitered every corner on the couching too.  More difficult?  A bit, yes, but I thought visually it would look the best and I liked the challenge!

A Bit More Foliage:
After the frame was complete, the ground felt a bit bare.  I actually did not notice this in person but found this as I took the documentation photos.  I ended up adding a bit extra foliage in the form of needlelace leaves and some silk-covered purl loops mixed in with the overtwist on the ground.

The Final Details and Frame:

The last wonderful detail was handing it over to the wonderful framing artists at Four Corners Framing.  June helped me choose a frame that matched the grandness of the story.  I had mounted the piece on the double matte as taught through my RSN training.  When I picked it up, June had such beautifully framed my piece that I was quite literally dancing with joy!  

This piece will now be making it's way to London to be part of the Broderers' Exhibition next week (22-28 February 2022) at Bankside Gallery and then I will be proudly hanging it in my house!  

Referenced Sources: (this is only a selection from my full bibliography)

A. G. Hassall and W. O. Hassall, The Douce Apocalypse: with an introduction and notes (Faber, 1961). 

Belt, Shawn. “Plant Fact Sheet - Golden Ragwort.” United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Services, USDA,

Bodleian Libraries, Bodleian Library MS. Douce 180, April 2021. 

David McKitterick, Nigel J. Morgan, Ian Short, and Teresa Webber, The Trinity Apocalypse (British Library: London, 2005). 

“MS. Douce 180,” Medieval Manuscripts, April 2021. 

Nigel J. Morgan, The Douce Apocalypse: picturing the end of the world in the Middle Ages (Bodleian Library, 2007). 

“Revelation 12: NLT Bible: YouVersion,” NLT Bible | YouVersion

“Revelation 21: NLT Bible: YouVersion,” NLT Bible | YouVersion

Richard K. Emmerson, Apocalypse Illuminated: the visual exegesis of revelation in medieval illustrated manuscripts (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018). 

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

"The Woman and the Dragon" from Revelation 12: The Woman Clothed with the Sun

The drama of the Woman's story matches the complexity of the various interpretations of the characters and symbols present. The most common variations of the Woman view her as a representation of the Church, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit, or a simultaneous combination of the Church and Mary.

Depictions of the Woman of Revelation 12 in the Douce Apocalypse

In the sequential frames depicting her story in the Douce Apocalypse, the Woman's clothes evolve as her story progresses. She first wears a red dress with blue sleeves, then a red dress hemmed with gold underneath a blue cloak, and finally, a blue dress and cloak both edged in gold. The methodical movement towards increasingly blue garments implies that it was a conscious decision and strengthens the interpretation of the Woman as a combination of both the Church and the virgin Mary. As her relationship to the Child, usually interpreted as Christ, becomes more distant, her garments morph from dominantly red, a color associated with the redemptive blood of Christ, to entirely blue, the color now associated with the Holy Mother Mary. The Sun is a symbol closely associated with Christ, and therefore, the red of her garments visibly wraps her in Christ's redemptive blood, providing salvation for believers from darkness through His death and resurrection. As her garments transition to blue, she assumes her role as the Mother of the Church; thus, she could simultaneously symbolize the Church while embodying the Holy Mother Mary. 

Depictions of the Woman of Revelation 12 in the Trinity Apocalypse

The Woman's clothing as depicted in the Trinity Apocalypse also morphs. When we first see her on folio 13r, she wears a desaturated red gown with a blue robe lined in red and with a green headscarf. The Sun is very stylized and sits behind her leaving her unprotected from the Dragon (McKitterick, 54). Her halo has 12 scalloped points finished with stars. The Child wears blue as she hands him to an angel, but then wears red as he is flown to heaven. 

In the next scene, we see the Woman holding her hands to caress a baby who is not present. Her halo has morphed into the traditional circular gold motif, and she wears a gown of blue with a robe of red.  

Skipping to folio 14r after the War in Heaven on 13v, we see her given her wings and fleeing from the Dragon's flood as she wears a gown of blue with a robe of blue powdered with gold motifs and a white headscarf. In the next scene, she wears the same garments as she sits protected in the wilderness, a portion of the narrative only depicted in the Trinity Apocalypse (McKitterick, 54).

Inspiration for the Woman:

Viewing the Woman from a modern gaze, her interpretative complications magnify. Is her story one of redemptive foreshadowing, or does she embody the expectations imposed onto women by fundamentalist interpretations of Biblical femineity, stripping women of any individual identity separate from her familial structure and closest male association (husband/father/etc)? Additionally, the representations of good and evil as personified through the Woman and the Whore of Babylon create a stark juxtaposition of feminine stereotypes and provoke questions concerning the role of grace in redemption. The association of red with the Whore of Babylon, both as told in Revelation as well as many medieval Apocalypse manuscripts, prompts one to consider if the transition of the color of her garments is truly representative of Christ's love or murmuring to women their "path to salvation" through maternal priorities. The choice to bring life into the world is the most significant power embodied in women and envied by men. As men are physically incapable of growing or biologically nourishing life, their power lies in the taking of life rather than the giving. Could the Red Dragon also foretell of the patriarchal systems that create such starkly controlled perceptions of women? John's narrow depiction of the Woman of Revelation 12 and the fluidity of the character's meanings create a narrative rife with interpretative complications.  

Stitching the Woman:

I wanted to stitch her in a way that acknowledged the range of her symbolic interpretations. I am not looking to answer questions or pronounce that I have discovered her or her story's true meaning. In fact, that very complexity and the diverse range of interpretations of her makes her so intriguing to me. I am fascinated by each of the arguments for the different interpretations. Rather than providing answers or conclusions in my piece, I want to elicit further questions--- what could she mean to us today? Does she have to mean the same thing to me as she does to you? Has her symbolism changed or stretched since the creation of the Anglo-Norman manuscripts? Where does she fit in the Biblical perception and contemporary Christian definition of womanhood? The design decisions I made to stitch her, both technical and aesthetic, will hopefully open the viewers to question these concepts rather than present a specific interpretation.

The Padding:  

Traditionally, the padding would have been accomplished with felt or string. Padded characters and deep relief did not become popular until later in medieval embroidery. Opus Anglicanum techniques are quite flat, and the depth in the composition is created through the intricacy of stitch. A natural loft happens when you see the slips stitched down or when a piece uses a velvet ground, but the actual stitching is all very much on one plane. Post Reformation on continental Europe, embroidery became increasingly more dimensional with deeply padded relief. I saw the choice to pad her as an opportunity to visually imply the contemporary viewpoint to the story that I have and included in my depiction of her story.

The traditional felt and string did not feel right for this piece as I wanted to pose a contemporary question with this conceptual opportunity. I chose to use dryer lent for the padding because of its relation to the domestic and its use in feminist art to represent the domestic space that women inhabit/are confined to. I wanted to ask--are women still fighting the same fights that women fought at the time these Apocalypse manuscripts were created? These depictions of the women in Revelation, both the actual descriptions in Revelation and how they were subsequently illustrated in art, are, to say the least, disconcerting. Having been raised in a strictly fundamentalist Christian way, I deeply understand the abusiveness and hurt that these confines cultivate. Yet, I am reminded that Jesus did not treat the women surrounding him during his time on earth with the same disdain and contempt seen in many ecclesiastical and secular environments.  

Since becoming a mother myself, the work of Mary Kelly has grown in personal significance. I very much felt her work after the birth of my daughter as I was also a full-time professor in a very male-dominated university. Her Post-Partum Document, created in the later 1970s, felt like an embodiment of solidarity, encouraging me in the face of blatant misogyny. Her use of compressed lint in a number of different series continues her political and social conversations. Sadly these questions feel as relevant today as they were in the 1970s and, as Christine de Pizan's writing exposes, as these ideas of womanhood were in Medieval Europe. Why isn't motherhood seen as a strength, or let's start by not counting it as a deficit?  

Finished lint padding.  I then added a layer of cotton muslin to protect the lint padding from the gold and make sure I did not have any lint peaking through.

Her Gown:

I specifically wanted a contemporary feel to the dress. I wanted the style of dress to be reminiscent of the drapiness of the medieval gowns, yet I did not want it to feel overtly medieval. I arrived at a simple, somewhat Grecian-style maternity gown. I rested her right hand on her belly to exaggerate the roundness and clearly communicate that she was still with Child.   

I knew I wanted her dress to be a combination of gold and Marian blue. This saturated form of blue has become synonymous with Mary even if depictions of her in medieval art also see her wearing red and green. I chose to stitch her in a combination of gold and Marian blue. I wanted to make visual references to both interpretations that she could represent either the Church (gold) or Mary (blue) herself. This was the reason why I purposely chose not to do the couching in undersided couching or shaded bands of split stitch, which would have been more faithful to the style seen in Opus Anglicanum. The Or Nué couching such as I have stitched here is more true to later Medieval embroidery such as this Cope Hood that is part of the V&A's Collection. Notice how on this piece the Woman's bodice and overskirt are stitched in primarily colored silk in a bricking pattern with the shadows stitched in Or Nué.    

Couching the passing down using three different shades of Marian blue silk.  Here you can see the layer of muslin I stitched down to protect the dryer lint padding from the padding.  

Couching complete and starting to plunge the ends to the back.

Ends plunged to back and ready to be tied down.  You can see the different blues much more clearly on the back and I love the stitch pattern created.  

All ends plunged and tied back.

I used tiny rows of silk split stitch for her face and arms to be more true to the Opus Anglicanum references. I used a combination of silk split stitch and single silver-plated passing couched for her hair. Several characters are depicted with this style of hair on the Burgo de Osma Retable and Altar Front at the Art Institute of Chicago, and it is a way of representing hair that I think is beautiful. I chose white for her hair to tie her to the Son of Man as described in Revelation 1: 13-18 . 


Completed Woman ready to be appliquéd to velvet.

Halo or Crown?:

In the Douce Apocalypse, the presence of a golden halo that contains 12 stars, as mentioned in Revelation 12:1, lends credence to the interpretation that the maker of the Douce Apocalypse was projecting the identity of Mary onto the Woman of Revelation 12. The Trinity Apocalypse's scalloped halo with stars was an interesting interpretation that broke with the more common gold circular motif used for halos. Common interpretations of the 12 stars include their symbolizing the 12 apostles, the 12 tribes of Israel, or the 12 Zodiac signs. Christine de Pizan's less common interpretation, and a connection described by Bonaventure, was that the 12 stars represented the 12 joys of Paradise (Kennedy, 284), foretelling of the joys to come after the Last Judgement. 

This creates an interpretation inclusive of the 12 tribes and 12 apostles as Revelation 21 tells of the "12 gates guarded by 12 angels. And the name of the 12 tribes of Israel written on the gates… The wall of the city had 12 foundation stones, and on them were written the names of the 12 apostles of the Lamb" (Revelation 21: 12-14, NLT). Additionally, the interpretation of the 12 stars of her crown foreshadowing the 12 joys of Paradise creates a connection between the Woman of Revelation 12 and the Bride of Christ of Revelation 21. It encourages a focus on the redemptive power of Christ and the glory to come for believers in the New Jerusalem. This connection also implies the Woman as the New Eve and further illustrates the grace and redemption of God (Le Frois 1958, 94). 

When stitching the Woman, I gave her a halo of 12 stars. The radial pattern reflects the halo of the Douce Apocalypse, while the spiked stars reflect the scalloped points of the halo of the Trinity Apocalypse. In reading her story in Revelation and the various interpretations of her, it felt essential to have precisely 12 stars represented. To flatten them into a solid halo felt like a loss of part of her story. I have stitched her halo of stars in gilt cutwork and s-ing with gilt spangles and chipping providing the finishing touch.  

Finally, I added a silver crescent moon padded with felt and stitched with kid leather appliqué, pearl purl outline, and chipping. Her silk split stitched foot barely peaks below her gown to step upon the moon.  

A Note About Inspirations

Because this was a contemporary view of this story and these inspirations from my viewpoint, I did not feel that I had to remain wholly true to one specific historic style. So, though I reference Opus Anglicanum and later medieval embroidery, I did not feel like I had to choose between them. In the same way that my view of this story is affected by countless influences throughout my life, and yours will be different because of your influences, the technical inspirations are a blend of various medieval European ecclesiastical embroidery styles. The purpose of this project was not historical recreation. It is a historically-inspired interpretation. 

More soon :) 

A few excellent talks:  

Excellent talk by Canon Jeremy Haselock for the Churches Conservation Trust.

Mary Kelly in Conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist for Tate Talks

Referenced Sources:
 (this is only a selection from my full bibliography)

A. G. Hassall and W. O. Hassall, The Douce Apocalypse: with an introduction and notes (Faber, 1961). 

Belt, Shawn. “Plant Fact Sheet - Golden Ragwort.” United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Services, USDA,

Bodleian Libraries, Bodleian Library MS. Douce 180, April 2021. 

David McKitterick, Nigel J. Morgan, Ian Short, and Teresa Webber, The Trinity Apocalypse (British Library: London, 2005). 

“MS. Douce 180,” Medieval Manuscripts, April 2021. 

Nigel J. Morgan, The Douce Apocalypse: picturing the end of the world in the Middle Ages (Bodleian Library, 2007). 

“Revelation 12: NLT Bible: YouVersion,” NLT Bible | YouVersion

“Revelation 21: NLT Bible: YouVersion,” NLT Bible | YouVersion

Richard K. Emmerson, Apocalypse Illuminated: the visual exegesis of revelation in medieval illustrated manuscripts (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018). 


Wednesday, January 26, 2022

"The Woman and the Dragon" from Revelation 12: the Background

The background of this piece was a true merge between my influences from both the Douce and Trinity Apocalypse manuscripts.  Ironically, the backgrounds of both are extremely different yet they play an integral part in what drew me to these two manuscripts.  In this blog post, I will summarize the aspects of each manuscript that played a key influence, and then I will discuss each part of the background on my embroidered panel and how these influences were synthesized in my piece.     

Trinity Apocalypse folio 13r

Influences from the Trinity Apocalypse:

I love the backgrounds in the Trinity Apocalypse-- how they are divided and form vignettes with the various bars and rectangles, how the colors are flipped to subtly reinforce this without creating visual noise that would distract from the figures depicted, and how the subtle patterning softens the solid spans of gold and saturated colors.  All these aspects I absolutely adore about the Trinity Apocalypse.  Much is written about the rendering style of the drapery, which no doubt is lovely but it is the background that captures my attention.  The harshness of the geometric divisions lends a more contemporary feel, especially as the artist has flipped complementary colors, as seen in the above image of Folio 13r.  If you separate the layers of the composition and image it without the imagery, the backgrounds themselves seem fairly noisy.  Yet, the powdering of the tiny motifs and groupings of dots seems to provide a buffer that harmoniously joins the background layer with the imagery layer.  The thin outline of gold then frames out each composition.     

Douce Apocalypse folio 33v

Influences from the Douce Apocalypse:

In looking at the Douce Apocalypse, one main aspect that I loved about how the illustrations are rendered is the blankness of the background.  This is starkly contrasting to the completely colored background of the Trinity Apocalypse, but there is something about the sketchbook-like quality that this blank background creates that I love.  It seems to open the door a bit more informally to the story and makes me feel like I am peaking into it as the artist is trying to sort out the story themselves.  This story is wild, complicated, layered, and not an easy one to unpack.  

Where the background of the Trinity Apocalypse is formed using harsher straight rectangular sectionings, the Trinity Apocalypse is abundant in its use of wavy lines and circles.  The concentric wavy lines encircling the Woman on Folio 33v create visual movement and direct the viewer's attention to her while not feeling stodgy.  Her crescent halo balances with the upside-down crescent moon to provide visible boundaries for the Woman and cocoon her pregnant belly, which strategically rests in the center of the concentric undulating circles.  Our foremost attention is directed to her child within her belly protected by her caressing hands while presenting her in a position of high importance.  The wavy lines of the landscape balanced with the wavy lines of the sky help to continue the softening of the composition.  The only straight, linear elements are the border and the staff in John's hand.  

Setting the Stage: 

The main portion of the background on my panel is composed of metallic gold linen.  I chose this fabric as it blended the reference to heaven in the gold and the reference of the redemption through Jesus' resurrection in the linen.  I then added a strip of apple green velveteen to provide a base for the foliage.  I chose a straight band as I wanted to include the strict geometry seen in the Trinity Apocalypse background.  To further the inspiration from the Trinity Apocalypse, I use fine gilt thread to create a thin lattice pattern covering the metallic linen background.  Though different from the powdered motifs of the Trinity Apocalypse, the lattice pattern maintains a similar diamond-shape to the repeat as the half-drop repeat has for the powdered motifs.  


The depictions of the foliage were especially charming in both manuscripts.  They remind me of crewelwork leaves and stems.  They are not remotely naturalistic and that is precisely why I love them so much!  In the Douce Apocalypse, the depiction of the foliage visually grows as the Woman’s story unfolds. When the Woman first appears, the foliage minimally anchors the composition providing John a place to sit. By the Woman’s escapes on 35r, the foliage covers almost half the background emphasizing her migration from celestial to the earthly environment.  I tried to be cognizant of this as I decided how much or how little foliage to add to the panel.  

For the actual foliage, I chose to appliqué silk that I had eco-printed with leaves.  I loved how the color of the eco-print mimicked the variation in the color washes of the Douce Apocalypse.  The leaves seemed oversize in the composition and yet are true to size biologically.  It also felt right to use something created quite literally from our world using a roadside weed, Appalachian Ragwort (Packera anonyma also called Small's Ragwort), which is both a pollinator for bees and butterflies yet can be poisonous to other animals such as livestock.  That duality, providing nourishment to some and toxicity to others, felt suitable for a composition depicting an Apocalyptic scene.  It is also in the same family as Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea) which was used medicinally by Native Americans to treat menses, prevent pregnancy, and help childbirth (Belt).

I appliquéd the leaf prints with stab stitches in a sketchy feel, securing them in place and emphasizing the contours of the leaves. I preserved enough bare botanical print to expose the color variation. I positioned the Dragon over the leaves as I wanted to make him feel like he was lurking in the foliage and just beginning to emerge to come after the Woman. I wanted there to be a connection between him and the vegetation anchoring him to the earth.  


In the Douce Apocalypse, the circular undulating lines framed the Woman Clothed with the Sun in such a beautiful way.  They represented heaven and created a womb-like protective boundary in which she resides.  This protective boundary and its womb-like feel were important to me when considering how to protect her from the Dragon.  

As tempted as I was to maintain the undulating movement around the circle, I felt it was important to smooth it out to give a nod to the clear geometric boundaries of the background vignettes on the Trinity Apocalypse.  To soften this edge, I knew I would add some kind of goldwork edging to blur the velvet boundary into the heavenly gilt linen background.  Though this crispness of edge felt like the right direction, it also created an emptiness in the velvet that seemed a bit naked when considering the influence of the Trinity Apocalypse.  Granted, the emptiness of the background of the Douce Apocalypse was one of the characteristics that sparked my interest; however, velvet has a much different visual that demanded something more.  This presented an interesting design dilemma, along with the edging choice, that required a bit more sampling on the side.  

For the edging, I tested different variations of pearl purl outlining and s-ing with smooth purl.  None of them worked.  They seemed too inconsequential and created the feel of a ragged edge instead of a purposely blurred edge—not the look I desired.  To be honest, I think I was over-complicating the matter.  The solution I chose for the final panel was a combination of couched passing and overstretched pearl purl using a Marian blue silk thread to attach both.  Sometimes simpler is better.  The Marian blue broke up the gold enough that it created a nice transition that felt considered yet not flashy. 

To address the nakedness of the velvet, I decided to mimic the diaper patterning present in the Trinity Apocalypse with stretched gilt smooth purl stars and small gilt spangles stitched with a Marian Blue silk thread.  It was essential to sample for the stars as redoing something on the velvet would have meant redoing the velvet altogether.  Anytime you take something out of velvet to redo it, bits of the pile are lost too, scarring the fabric.  I tested different size gilt spangles, various attaching methods, stars created with stretched and unstretched cutwork, and purl french knots.  In the end, I chose a combination of spangles and stretched purl stars, aligning them to the same grid formed from the gilt thread lattice covering the metallic linen allowing the pattern to span the surface of the background.  

The next post will be about the aspect that intrigued me most about the story and within the manuscripts.... the Woman Clothed with the Sun!  

Referenced Sources: (this is only a selection from my full bibliography)

A. G. Hassall and W. O. Hassall, The Douce Apocalypse: with an introduction and notes (Faber, 1961). 

Belt, Shawn. “Plant Fact Sheet - Golden Ragwort.” United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Services, USDA,

Bodleian Libraries, Bodleian Library MS. Douce 180, April 2021. 

David McKitterick, Nigel J. Morgan, Ian Short, and Teresa Webber, The Trinity Apocalypse (British Library: London, 2005). 

“MS. Douce 180,” Medieval Manuscripts, April 2021. 

Nigel J. Morgan, The Douce Apocalypse: picturing the end of the world in the Middle Ages (Bodleian Library, 2007). 

“Revelation 12: NLT Bible: YouVersion,” NLT Bible | YouVersion

“Revelation 21: NLT Bible: YouVersion,” NLT Bible | YouVersion

Richard K. Emmerson, Apocalypse Illuminated: the visual exegesis of revelation in medieval illustrated manuscripts (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018). 

Saturday, July 3, 2021

"The Woman and the Dragon" from Revelation 12: the Red Dragon

The Red Dragon was my starting point for this project. As I contemplated the narrative of the Woman Clothed in the Sun, I have to admit that I was so intrigued at the challenge of how to create the Dragon in stitch that I could not pass up this opportunity to give it a go. He appears in two sections of Revelation 12. He is presented in verses 3 and 4. Verses 5 and 6 describe the Woman giving birth to the Child, offering the Child to Heaven, and then fleeing for the Wilderness. Then the Dragon returns to siege war in Heaven and subsequently faces expulsion from Heaven after his defeat.

Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. .....
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

                                                                                    - Revelation 12:  3-4 and 7-9  

So who was the Red Dragon?

The Red Dragon is a personification of Satan or the Devil. Its seven heads wear seven crowns and have ten horns. The narrative does not specify how the ten horns are divided between the seven heads. The number seven is crucial as it usually is connected with the idea of completion in the Bible. In this context, the seven crowned heads refer to the seven deadly sins or the complete embodiment of evil.  

As we looked at the various depictions of the Red Dragon in Medieval Apocalypse manuscripts in class, I could not help but imagine how I could stitch each one. My favorite depiction was from the Silos Apocalypse housed at the British Library (image below). Honestly, would this not be so much fun to stitch! I love all the patterns and bold colors, the dots speckling the Dragon, who seems much more serpent-like here than most other depictions. The stars appear like tiny daisies, and the depictions of the Woman are also interesting. My fingers were twitching as color numbers and goldwork techniques filled my imagination.  

My Red Dragon is inspired by Komodo dragons. I wanted to base it on an animal that was not extinct, that still lurks around the globe. I looked at various ones from different zoos and National Geographic photography and YouTube. Their movement is slow, methodical, and creepy.  

Once I had the base body, I played around with adding six more heads. A question that became very important was, "Should the heads be of equal size?". In theory, the answer to that question is probably yes, as the sins are seen as equally bad. However, I felt that it was essential for there to be a larger head, partly as visually it seemed creepier, and partly because in the Christian churches I grew up in, there was common debate about which sin was the "unforgivable sin" as mentioned in the New Testament. 

So how was the Dragon depicted in Apocalypse manuscripts?

In most of the manuscripts I have explored, all seven of the heads are of equal size to each other. In both the Douce Apocalypse and the Trinity Apocalypse, this is the case. However, the necks intertwining in the Dragon of the Trinity Apocalypse have a different feel than the more equally long necks of the Douce Apocalypse's Dragon heads.  

There are a couple of exceptions that made me feel like it was ok to deviate from the majority for my visual interpretation. The Bamberg Apocalypse is one of those examples and happens to be an Apocalypse manuscript that I find stunning stylistically. As depicted below in folio 29v, the Red Dragon in the Bamberg Apocalypse has one main head with six smaller heads stemming from the primary neck.  Also of note is the beautifully vivid colors used to render this beast. 

Bamberg Apocalypse, Bamberg Staatsbibliothek, Msc.Bibl.140, folio 29v.

It was also interesting to consider the division of the horns to the heads as ten does not split evenly between seven heads, and, as you can imagine, there were many different ways that we see the manuscript artists dividing the horns to the heads. I decided that the smaller heads would have a single horn, and the remaining four horns would adorn the most prominent head. This acknowledges the possibility of an unforgivable sin, which may be outside or inclusive of the delineations of the seven deadly sins.  It also is a way to recognize that each person may not struggle with different sins equally.  

Stitching the Red Dragon:

Now that I had the basic outline of my Red Dragon, we have reached the "fun" part-- how to make it come to life in stitch! I knew I wanted it coming off the ground fabric. This Dragon was not going to be a shrinking, wallflower of a dragon. I began by padding him up with layers of felt on the body and soft string under felt for the tail. Watching the movements and joints of the Komodo Dragons helped me figure out how I wanted to pad the body. I, unfortunately, did not take photos between each layer, but the thickest area of felt was about 5 or 6 layers deep.  

Once the padding was complete, it was time to add the first layer of stitching. I rendered it using split stitch (a nod to Opus Anglicanum) but using multiple strands in my needle to allow for some fun color mixing. The numerous strands also created a great texture that felt reptilian.  

Also, a note: I know he has three legs. I had planned for the back leg to be covered in foliage, so I haven't forgotten about it. It's just going to be covered. 

Then, I played around with different ways of making it more scaley using various needlelace and goldwork techniques. I hated all of them once they were on the Dragon, so each and every attempt was patiently taken out. Sometimes that is the only thing to do. Below is one of the failed attempts. This iteration was the one I thought was the least offensive as you could sculpt the needlelace to stand off the body. However, I was not fond enough of it to keep it, so it went too.  

Now, here is the part of the making story that I love. I was so excited about the Dragon and stitching it that I kept telling my husband different ways I was thinking of stitching it. As he went to bed, he said to me, "Just don't make it too complicated." In fairness to him, I was originally trying to finish this by the time the class finished too, but all I could think was-- challenge accepted! I wanted to make the heads 3-dimensional. I wanted them coming at you! Flat heads would not do for this demonic creature lurking in my composition. I also had this idea of sculpting tubular Ceylon stitch to create these auxiliary heads that I could not wait to try.  

Tubular Ceylon stitch is used in 17th Century raised-work to create little Ceylon stitch caterpillars to add to the flora and fauna that dapples the compositions. Why could I not make dragon heads like I would make the caterpillars and make them stand up and join it with a needlelace head? So, I tried it. The first result was ok, but I think I tried to accomplish too much by joining the heads into a snake hood-type structure. Below is an example of a pair combined.  

After testing out joining the necks, I decided that individual neck/heads joined directly to the body was the best way to go forward. It allowed me to blend it into the body better and provided a smooth surface if I wanted to add anything after the joining.  

I plunged the ends down to help secure the heads. The long silk pins enabled me to adjust the heads' directions and sequence as each neck is a different length to allow for perspective in the composition. Once I pinned them to my liking, I secured them to the body blending the joining stitches into the body stitches. 

Now, the Dragon needed a wing. I made it with a mix of Gilt Sylke Twist, silk gimp, and silk floss using Brussels and corded Brussels stitch.  Once completed, it was released from the template fabric and secured into place on the Dragon's body.

Next came drizzle stitch horns and french knot eyes before adding the final details of gilt crowns, tongues, and claws.  Then my Red Dragon was ready to be appliquéd into place, so my attention turned to the ground fabrics.   

Next time-- the background....

A Note About This Project: This is not a project foretelling the end of the world. I am also not trying to start any theological debates. I created this embroidered panel inspired by a continuing education class I took this spring, "Animals and Monsters at the End of the World in Medieval Art," with Dr. Monica Walker. In this course, we compared depictions of animals and "monsters" in a selection of Medieval Apocalypse Manuscripts and Art. It was fascinating to approach the subject of the Book of Revelation from an art history perspective and compare how the various characters and narratives were depicted.  This is my personal interpretation of the story inspired by a couple of the manuscripts studied.  

Referenced Sources: (this is only a selection from my full bibliography)

A. G. Hassall and W. O. Hassall, The Douce Apocalypse: with an introduction and notes (Faber, 1961). 

Bodleian Libraries, Bodleian Library MS. Douce 180, April 2021. 

David McKitterick, Nigel J. Morgan, Ian Short, and Teresa Webber, The Trinity Apocalypse (British Library: London, 2005). 

“MS. Douce 180,” Medieval Manuscripts, April 2021. 

Nigel J. Morgan, The Douce Apocalypse: picturing the end of the world in the Middle Ages (Bodleian Library, 2007). 

“Revelation 12: NLT Bible: YouVersion,” NLT Bible | YouVersion

“Revelation 21: NLT Bible: YouVersion,” NLT Bible | YouVersion

Richard K. Emmerson, Apocalypse Illuminated: the visual exegesis of revelation in medieval illustrated manuscripts (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018).