Thursday, June 10, 2021

"The Woman and the Dragon" from Revelation 12: an Introduction

"The Red Dragon Lurks in Front of the Woman Clothed with the Sun" 
work in progress by Katherine Diuguid, 2021.

It does seem a bit appropriate to be stitching an Apocalyptic scene during a global pandemic, in a way, but that is not why I'm currently stitching this piece. I feel the need to put a disclaimer at the top that this is not a project foretelling the end of the world! Be at ease, my friend!

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.

For our final paper, I chose to write about “The Woman and Dragon” of Revelation 12 as depicted in the Douce Apocalypse housed in the Bodleian Library. I love that its illustrations survive at various states of completion, exposing the laborious nature of the work required to create such an exquisite piece. The story of the Woman Clothed with the Sun is beautifully depicted across three pages. Her story's complexity and portrayal of femininity were fascinating to explore, especially for modern women reading today. I will readily admit to being disturbed by the narrow portrayal of women and dismayed that, if we’re honest, not much has changed while searching for the hope that is the heart of Christian belief. As Dr. Walker repeated throughout the course, “This is not an easy story.”

For the panel, I drew inspiration from both the Douce Apocalypse and the Trinity Apocalypse. Both are beautiful examples of an Anglo-Norman Apocalypse manuscript; however, there are many differences between them. Over the next series of blog posts, I will discuss the different parts of my embroidered panel in more detail and how I drew inspiration from both the Douce Apocalypse and Trinity Apocalypse to create my piece. While both are Thirteenth Century Anglo-Norman manuscripts, there is a lot to compare between them. In this blog post, I thought I would introduce the two inspirational manuscripts and lay the groundwork for all the design decisions to come and all the many, many details intricately stitched to bring my embroidered Apocalyptic scene to life. 

The Douce Apocalypse

A mixture of elegantly rendered and unfinished drawings, the Douce Apocalypse is a beautiful example of an Anglo-Norman Apocalypse manuscript whose illustrations reveal the laborious work required to execute a manuscript of this caliber. The richness of the text and images are reflective of the assumed patrons Edward I and Eleanor of Castile before their ascension to the English throne and whose coats of arms are painted inside the beginning of the manuscript.  

Rectangular illustrated miniatures rest atop two columns of Latin text in the Douce Apocalypse. The manuscript includes a commentary by Berengaudus and a commentary in French prose at the front of the text. It is part of the Westminster group of Anglo-Norman Apocalypse manuscripts that includes the Getty ApocalypseMS 35166 at the British Library, and MC lat. 10474 at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF) (Morgan, 12). This group of manuscripts was all written between 1255-70 and share many similarities in their visual execution of the various Apocalyptic narratives. The angels throughout the Douce Apocalypse mimic the rendering style of angels painted on the ceiling of Westminster Abbey and help to date the manuscript to 1265- 1270 when the then Prince Edward left for the Crusades (Morgan, 29).

Though the specific artist(s) is unknown, it is believed that the BNF MC lat. 10474 is a sister manuscript to the Douce Apocalypse and was probably created by the same artist(s) at a different point in their career or artists that closely collaborated (Morgan, 21). The miniatures in the Douce Apocalypse survive at various stages of completion from simple line drawing, line drawing with gilding, the addition of base color washes, and finally, compositions fully rendered with colored washes and gilding. The story of the Woman Clothed with the Sun is one of the narratives that has been fully rendered with colored washes and gilding.

Douce Apocalypse, Bodleian Library, fol. 33v.

Making her first appearance in the Douce Apocalypse on fol. 33v, the Woman Clothed with the Sun emerges wearing a red dress with blue sleeves as a halo containing 12 stars frames her face. She caresses her belly while standing atop a moon inside a series of concentric blue and gold undulating lines. John sits to the side on a grassy hill. 

Douce Apocalypse, Bodleian Library, fol. 34r.

On fol. 34r, she shifts left of center inside the celestial lines as she hands her child, now born, up to heaven through a mandorla entering the frame. The seven-headed Red Dragon stands overlapping the heavenly lines, encroaching into the Woman’s space, yet distant enough to prevent its desired intent upon the Child. Progressing across the composition, the Dragon shares the grassy ridge as the Woman flees, reflecting upon her terror.  Abstracted trees topped with clumps of oversized oak leaves and foliage fill the wilderness. 

Douce Apocalypse, Bodleian Library, fol. 35v. 

The Woman reappears in fol. 35v receiving wings and escaping as the earth swallows the water the Dragon spews towards her.  This series of sequential images and the style of the compositions are very similar across the Westminster group of Apocalypse manuscripts that includes the Getty Apocalypse, MS 35166 at the British Library, and MC lat. 10474 at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF) (Morgan, 12).  

The Trinity Apocalypse

The Trinity Apocalypse does not belong to a manuscript grouping and is set aside by itself amongst Thirteenth Century Anglo-Norman Apocalypse manuscripts. The tale of the Woman and the Dragon is depicted on two folios with two rectangular illustrations on each.  The Trinity Apocalypse dispenses with all introductions of the characters.  We jump straight into the story on folio 13r, where we meet the Woman as she lays in bed with the sun behind her and the moon at her feet.  She has already given birth to the Child and is handing Him to an angel in Heaven.  In the next scene, the illustration shows the Woman sitting in the wilderness.  

Trinity Apocalypse, Trinity College Cambridge, fol. 13r.

In folio 14r, we find the war in heaven complete and the Dragon spewing water at the Woman attempting to drown her. She receives wings from heaven, escapes the Dragon’s persecution, and flees to the desert, leaving her children to defeat the Dragon.   

Trinity Apocalypse, Trinity College Cambridge, fol. 14r.

When we look at the overall page composition, we can see that the format of each page does not fit into the straight template used in the Douce Apocalypse. The text is still split into two columns, but the illustrations are doubled and are not consistently at the top of the text. The text and Berengaudas commentary, both in Anglo-Norman, appear to be the work of one scribe. The choice to avoid a strict template may have been the artists attempt to compensate for the differing lengths between the Biblical text and commentary (McKitterick, 35 and 42). 

The illustrations of the Trinity Apocalypse are richly rendered without any bare space remaining. The full illustrations are each completely filled with color washes and gilding with the backgrounds filled with interesting geometric vignettes that frame the compositions and create a harmonious feel joining the compositions together. Delicate tiny patterns are used in the large areas to break up the solid spaces resulting in richly detailed compositions in which every area seems deeply special and considered. 

The Focus of My Panel

When considering which part of the narrative to depict in my embroidered panel, I was drawn to the section of the text which both of the manuscripts seemed to skip past--Revelation 12: 3 and 4 which describes the presentation of the Red Dragon. I decided to create an embroidered panel based on this section of the story.  

3Then I witnessed in heaven another significant event. 
I saw a large red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, 
with seven crowns on his heads. 
4His tail swept away one-third of the stars in the sky, 
and he threw them to the earth. 
He stood in front of the woman as she was about to give birth, 
ready to devour her baby as soon as it was born.  
Revelation 12: 3 and 4

In comparing the written story in Revelation to the depicted story in both the Douce and Trinity Apocalypse, it seemed like a large visual jump to leave out the presentation of the Red Dragon. And, I cannot lie. I got really excited thinking about how I could stitch a seven-headed dragon!

Why These Two Apocalypse Manuscripts?

So, why did I choose these two specific manuscripts? Well, it's not because they were my favorite. There are definitely aspects of each that I love, but if I had to pick a favorite it might be the Silos Apocalypse for its amazing use of pattern within the motifs. I chose these two manuscripts because there were enough similarities that comparing the two made logical sense and enough differences that I felt confident that I could create a piece that would give a nod to both while being distinctly mine. Also, the reasons that I love each are directly opposite each other. 

The plain background of the Douce Apocalypse is fabulous. It simultaneously feels like a sketchbook while also minimizing any distraction from the stories depicted. I also really enjoy the geometry present in the compositions--the concentric circles and their undulating lines reflected in the foliage boundaries. The movement of the narrative through the imagery is well developed. The foliage becomes more and more prominent as the Woman descends from Heaven and then is earthbound. 

The fully rendered background of the Trinity Apocalypse, on the other hand, I love too! The delicate diaper patterns soften the background vignettes' harsh rectangles and help harmonize the background with the foreground. It is also a lovely study in color placement. 

I wanted to be able to incorporate my reflections on both the imagery and the complexities I found with the story itself. As a woman, the depictions of femineity in Revelation are troubling and I hold no judgment towards anyone that reads it and rejects that imagery as wholly misogynistic. The story of Revelation is far too frequently used for emotional and psychological subjugation by way of fear and shame. I wanted my piece to reflect the hope of the Christian story, not the condemnation. 

Watch this space for more :) 

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).