Girl and snake at the end of time

Once we get past the first three chapters of Genesis, there is no text in the Bible which has been such a flashpoint for discussions of gender, power, economics, or the human future as the Revelation to John of Patmos – and it is not a coincidence that these two texts sit in a single sentence, for John is very deliberately writing a book which, after taking on and taking up the entire prophetic tradition, consciously returns to and rewrites the very beginning of scripture. John’s Revelation has been significantly repositioned by recent scholarship, which has understood its connections to the Hebrew prophets and also placed it in a liberation theology framework, understanding it as a voice from the oppressed margins, watching a vast and decadent empire approaching its collapse; a book which can only be read properly if white Christians in the developed world realize that, not only are we not John’s persecuted community, we are in fact Babylon.

Like the prophets, upon whom he draws heavily, John of Patmos is preoccupied with the intersection between idolatry and the economy, the Imperial cult of his time and its inextricable entanglement with economic injustice. The rider on the black horse (6:5-6) does not represent simply famine, but specifically famine created by market manipulation of food price and supply. The merchants who lament over Babylon (18:11-17) are appalled by the loss of a market for their luxury goods, and their detailed and loving listing of those goods reaches its climax with “and slaves – and human lives.” In one hour, so much wealth laid waste, as the economy of oppression falls beneath its own weight. And John, going beyond the prophets, sees the inevitable consequence of this injustice not simply as exile, but as absolute, ontological destruction.

Revelation is a book full of problems, one which recommends to the oppressed a stance of nonviolent civil resistance by deploying extraordinarily bloody and violent imagery, shot through with troubling misogyny; one in which the moment of triumph over “Babylon” becomes a tragic lament, and the beautiful evocation of the redeemed garden/city falls into sour reminders of those locked forever outside. John of Patmos was a writer of genius, and as such is always saying more than he intends, and sometimes the opposite of what he intends; and one has to grant him a good deal for being the only person with the sheer absolute nerve to try to describe the reconciliation of the cosmos in a way sufficiently meaningful to make it into the canon of scripture, if only barely. But it appears to be a reconciliation which, on the human level, is available exclusively to male virgins (Revelation 14:4), and one cannot be without sympathy for feminist theologians like Tina Pippin (Death and Desire, Wipf & Stock, 1992), who argues that the book simply cannot be rehabilitated.

Leaving aside the gender-ambiguous Lamb/Son of Man figure, whom we have discussed earlier, there are four clearly female-coded figures in the imagery of Revelation, usually mapped in pairs. The first to be mentioned is Jezebel of Thyatira, who was probably a historical figure, though not very likely actually named Jezebel. Oddly, the name has come to be associated with seduction and promiscuity, though Jezebel in the First Book of Kings is condemned for idolatry primarily, and secondarily for the theft of land through fraud, and it is obviously this economic/idolatrous nexus which John wishes to recall. It is not quite clear what the Jezebel of Revelation did exactly, though she was apparently an early Christian leader with whom John violently disagreed, probably mainly over the ethics of eating meat which had been sacrified to idols, and perhaps the ethics of participation in the Roman money economy generally (Rowan Williams’ description of Jezebel as “a harmless liberal” seems not far from the truth). She may have been involved in the Imperial economy to a degree which John considered fatally compromising, and I cannot resist a fanciful alignment of Jezebel of Thyatira with Paul’s colleague Lydia of Thyatira, a dealer in the purple cloth valued by the Imperial elite.

The more or less historical Jezebel of Thyatira is often aligned – though John may not have intended this — with the most vivid and well-remembered female figure in Revelation, the clearly metaphorical Whore of Babylon. The great whore is, without question, Rome, and the imagery of sex and the sex trade is used, as it so often is, to speak of idolatry and economic oppression – the great city selling itself to the interests of wealth, and an economy based on debt and chattel slavery – but it is hard to deny that John seems to take a disturbingly intense pleasure in describing the character’s many “harlotries”, and even more in the gory and extensive details of her fall and her endless punishment.

The “redeemed” female figure of the Bride is barely a sketch, in comparison – the Bride fills a bride-shaped place in a narrative of union, and that is about all that she does. But there is, earlier in the text, another figure, one nearly as vivid as the great whore – the mysterious woman clothed with the sun. While the final chapters of Revelation will recapitulate one central symbol of Genesis, the Tree of Life which is returned to us in the end, at the centre of the city which is also a garden, this earlier figure brings us back to the other central symbol – the girl and the snake, facing each other once again.

The woman clothed with the sun sweeps into the text for one chapter only, in the midst of thunder and lightning, immediately after the seventh trumpet has been blown and the ark in heaven opened. The whole chapter is a bit of an interlude, largely separate from the spiralling narrative patterns of seven and the system of symbols which make up most of the book; its imagery is less directly connected to the author’s central concern with the Roman economy and idolatry, but is almost as poetic and evocative as the final visionary chapters. When first seen, the woman is crying out in the pain of childbirth (cf Genesis 3:16 – while it is true that not every reference to painful childbirth directly recalls this story, we are embedded here in a context of recapitulation and return which makes it likelier), and a great red dragon stands in front of her, waiting to devour her child. But the child, a boy, is snatched up to God’s throne, while the woman flees into the desert, where she is sustained by God for a long measure of time, calling to mind the children of Israel in Exodus, as well as Elijah in Second Kings.

The archangel Michael strikes down the dragon, but despite some triumphant hymnody, this succeeds mostly in setting the dragon off in pursuit of the woman again. She escapes once more to the desert, flying on two great wings; the dragon attempts to sweep her away in a flood, but the earth comes to her assistance and swallows the water. The dragon, frustrated by this turn of events, goes to “wage war on the rest of her offspring”, and we move to the next chapter, and the story of the beasts of the sea and the land. The woman is not seen again in the text — unless she is identified with the Bride, but there is really nothing to suggest such an identification, and many things which argue against it.

She is a powerful, cryptic figure, not as entirely defined by childbearing as it may initially appear, and in fact more important in this story than is her child (or children, apparently). Though her main activity is escape, this escape is by no means passive – she flies on the wings of eagles (Exodus 19:4, Isaiah 40:31), she summons the power of the earth itself to her aid, she averts the threat of great waters. She is one who, unlike Michael, does not engage in battle with the dragon, but rather neutralizes its efforts at destruction, with the help of the created world itself. That her appearance so precisely correponds with the opening of the Ark, the place of God’s revelation, cannot be coincidental. This is a moment in which the rupture of Genesis 3 is unmade. The earth from which the human creature was alienated becomes an ally again, coming to assist a figure who is aligned with Moses and Elijah. There is something here which moves close to a central redemptive act, though the action is left suspended, unfinished, and she vanishes from the narrative as suddenly as she entered.

She is not the only character to disappear, as John’s fantasia of imagery unfolds, but given the complexity of her short chapter, the way that she is aligned both with the story of the Fall and the story of the Exodus, and her unusual relationship to the Ark and to the dragon, she is worth further meditation.

Important as John’s economic and political critique is, we encounter something different in this chapter. The beasts from the land and the sea, which rise up in the next chapter, are clearly representations of the empire of his day, its violence and its idolatrous economy; the beast from the sea, with seven heads clearly representing a series of emperors, seems reminiscent of the Roman imperial forces which came into ancient Judea by sea, and the beast from the land, which wields authority on behalf of the first beast and forces the earth to worship it, could represent religious officials of the imperial cult, or perhaps the puppet governors who exercised power in their own land on behalf of Rome. The dragon does not inhabit this realm of clear analogy. It is something older and deeper, a mythic force of unmaking, the Tiamat which the Genesis I creation account deliberately omits. Later in the text, the dragon will become “that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan,” an alignment of the subtle serpent of Genesis 3 with that later personification of evil who makes wagers with God over Job’s faithfulness and tempts Jesus in the desert. Only in Revelation does he become a dragon, and a force of such power that he seems very nearly impossible to defeat; though Michael casts him down and the woman frustrates his plans, John keeps on bringing him back. Only at the very last is he definitively “cast into the lake of fire.” It is in John alone, among all the writers of scripture, that we find a creature of evil which seems nearly independent of God’s control, nearly a rival, and one which must be destroyed in direct combat. In this respect, John does not recapitulate Genesis, but rather rewrites it, and in this revision he has been massively influential in Christian thought, though not necessarily in a helpful way. It is undoubtedly true that John, if directly challenged, would admit that Satan was in fact defeated by the Lamb’s self-offering, rather than in an actual battle, but his metaphorical narrative has assumed control of his theology by this point.

But perhaps the woman clothed with the sun, and her later existence in Christian iconography, provide us with a way to think through our narratives, past the dualism which is so strong in Revelation generally, and back towards the assertion of Genesis 1, that no part of creation is outside God’s saving action – that the God who does not need to destroy in order to create is the same God who speaks of the monster Leviathan with admiration and affection, and the same God who, in Jesus, can simply walk away from Satan’s schemes in the desert, and break open the gates of Hell not as a warrior, but as a rescuer who goes into the place of death and transforms it.

The most obvious continuing influence of this passage in Christian iconography is the identification of this woman with Mary of Nazareth, which was the predominant interpretation of the passage for some centuries. She has also, and more plausibly, been identified with the people of Israel, or the specific Jewish messianic community from which Revelation emerged, or with the early Christian church. It is not clear that John of Patmos himself would have been able to make a clear distinction between these three communities, and the woman is probably on the shifting border between them – the body of the community, both generative and threatened, but under God’s protection; able to escape the demonic systems of the world, and to stand against their designs, in alliance with earth itself.

Artistic depictions of this scene have, for the most part, concentrated on the first few lines of the chapter, especially when the Marian identification is in play. For centuries, it has been common, and still is in some contexts, to depict Mary, even when no dragon is in sight, with a crown of twelve stars, a crescent moon under her feet, and a glowing or fiery mandorla surrounding her, all drawn from this text. In many medieval, and later, depictions of the scenes from Revelation 12 specifically, the woman is visually signalled as Mary; even when that is not the case, as in Albrecht Dürer’s illustration, she is shown standing, usually in a fairly placid mood, before a seven-headed red dragon; she may have wings, although usually not, and there may be a suggestion of flooding around the bottom of the picture, but this is rarely prominent.

Illuminated manuscripts are more likely than paintings or other artworks to give the woman an identity of her own, and explore more aspects of the story. The Bamburg Apocalypse (c. 1020) includes a powerful depiction of her flying on her great wings above the dragon, whose exhalation of water is blocked by a dark, and apparently airborne, mound of earth; a 13th century English Apocalypse picture book includes two drawings in which she is fitted with wings by an angel, then flies away from the dragon while the earth swallows the flood from his mouth; interestingly, she carries a small book in both pictures. Whether this is meant to align her with the angelic figures in Revelation who carry scrolls of prophetic significance, or perhaps to reflect the frequent iconography of Mary reading, is hard to say with certainty, but it does seem to suggest that the character is someone with some kind of important knowledge. She is also carrying a book when she receives her wings in the mid-14th century Cloisters Apocalypse, though not in the equivalent scene depicted in the Apocalypse tapestry of Angers, later in the same century.

William Blake, one of the few notable modern artists to attempt this scene, is clearly a lot more interested in the Great Red Dragon, which he painted four times; only two of these paintings include the rather alarmed-looking woman, who is painted with far less loving attention. In Salvador Dali’s lithographic illustration, on the other hand, the dragon – if he is there at all – is a sort of ink blot, while the woman is an evocative outline with a suggestion of wings, a bright mandorla outshining the dark wisps of ink around her.

The most interesting modern attempt to deal with this text, however, was made in the mid-twentieth century by the painter Corita Kent (at the time, Sister Mary Corita IHS). A screenprint from 1956 is titled “A Woman Clothed with the Sun”, and shows the face of a woman, whose features suggest that she is probably African-American, holding an infant, surrounded by blocks of colour and the text of the title in large, somewhat woodcut-like, letters; there may be a faint hint of the dragon in some of the red shapes above her. An identification with Mary seems very likely. More interesting is a second screenprint from 1958, titled “Revelation 12:15-18”. A small but forceful figure in a white robe is depicted, facing away from us, on a rocky landscape at the edge of a wild river; the figure may be running into the flood, or through it; their posture is dynamic. Above their head, they are holding – or catching? — another small figure who appears to have a halo – a figure perhaps the size of a child, or a lamb. Is the dynamic figure the woman, overcoming the flood, protecting the smaller figure? Or is the smaller, haloed figure the woman clothed in sun, upheld and protected by God? Without a visible dragon or angel, or obvious divine intervention, this is a person risking danger and the force of destruction to preserve, rescue, transport; a person at the border of human and divine reality. The picture evokes Moses at the Red Sea, and perhaps also the baptism of Christ which underlies the baptism of each human being. The woman goes from the wilderness into the water, and the title of the print assures us that she is saved.

We have not yet sorted out the dragon. Before leaving the woman who confounds and defeats, but does not destroy, I would like to take one more, admittedly highly speculative, turn, towards the legends of Margaret of Antioch and Martha of Bethany. It is fairly well-accepted that Margaret of Antioch had no historical existence, but she seems to have been talked about in connection with a dragon from at least the fourth century. Martha of Bethany, of course, figures in the gospels of Luke and John, but it is improbable in the highest degree that she actually travelled to Languedoc, where her dragon legend emerged around the twelfth century. It is not entirely impossible to suppose that the legends grew from depictions of a woman and a dragon, oddly face to face and out of time, as so many illustrations of the text of Revelation have shown them. And even if they did not, they inhabit something like the same mental space.

Margaret was, according to most version of her legend, the daughter of a pagan priest, and was, in a familiar trope, martyred in her teens for consecrating her virginity to God and refusing marriage, in this case to a Roman governor. Her martyrdom, however, was preceded by a number of miraculous escapes, including an incident in which she was swallowed by a dragon. Whether she was carrying a cross at the time, or simply made the sign of the cross from within the dragon’s belly, the result was that the dragon either burst open or simply coughed her up – this, evidently, qualifying her to become the patron saint of childbirth. While some artistic depictions of Margaret show her emerging from the exploded innards of the dragon, or, occasionally, skewering its mouth with her cross, there are many more which show her posed with the dragon in what appears to be a relatively collegial relationship, sometimes with Margaret even holding it like a pet, or leading it around on a leash.

At times, there is uncertainty as to whether it is Margaret who is being depicted, or Martha of Bethany. Martha’s dragon story is even more complex, and linked to the peculiar but persistent tradition which maintains that Mary Magdalene, sometime after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, settled in the south of France. Since Mary Magadalene was frequently identified with Mary of Bethany, many versions of the story have her accompanied by the other Bethany siblings, Martha and Lazarus, as well as, sometimes, John the Beloved Disciple (who is himself often, though incorrectly, identified with John of Patmos). Several 12th and 13th century texts record the tradition that Martha settled near Tarascon, where a dragon, described as a descendant of Leviathan – a water beast, and linked to the formless water shaped into meaning at creation — was terrorizing the countryside. Martha went out to meet the dragon, tamed it by sprinkling it with holy water, and leashed it with her girdle; it was then destroyed by the townspeople. But while the written versions of the legend all clearly end with the death of the dragon (Diane Peters, The Many Faces of Martha of Bethany, Novalis 2008, has a good overview of the relevant literature), visual art lives in a somwhat different world, and, as with Margaret, it is not uncommon to see depictions of Martha leading what appears to be a pet dragon around with a ribbon. Most interesting of all, perhaps, are those pictures where she carries an aspergillum, subduing the semi-aquatic beast through water (redeemed from water by water, perhaps, to paraphrase Eliot).

The fact that the dragon often still has human body parts in its mouth adds considerably to the ambiguity of the scene; although this is not an invariable feature, it does remind us that we cannot talk about any of these matters lightly, that there is a real force of violence which must be brought under control, and that evil is not simply a difference of opinion. But Martha, like the Virgin face to face with the seven-headed dragon, like the white-robed figure in Corita Kent’s screenprint, displays neither fear nor anger – it is the quiet confidence of the Christ who harrows hell.

John’s deficiency of mercy, his narrow sense of who may finally enter the City of God, and his conviction that not only the dragon, but all collaborators, compromisers, the hesitant and the harmless liberals, can only be consigned to eternal exclusion and punishment, cannot be denied as a feature of his text, even those his own poetic impulse sometimes undermines it — “Let everyone who is thirsty come.” And this has had an arguably outsized influence on the Christian imagination going foward. And yet, there is a countercurrent of imagery which pulls the other way, which poses the girl and the snake together, and does not believe that destruction is the fate of even the more problematic parts of creation.

It is a distance from the woman clothed with the sun to Domkerk St Maarten in Utrecht. But in the Van Avesnes Chapel of that church, there is a badly weathered 14th/15th century fresco which somehow survived the Reformation, and which has held my own imagination for many years. At the centre is the crucified Christ, his body stretched and starved. At one side of the cross, in a fairly conventional motif, St John holds the Virgin as she droops in a partial faint. But at the other side is a female-appearing figure – probably Margaret, possibly Martha — holding a slender cross, either astride or emerging from a dragon. And at the foot of the cross, the dragon stands, with its huge leathery wings and seven small fire-breathing heads, gazing upwards with what can only be described as reverence.

We know nothing of the artist; and there is nothing in the life of Bishop Guy of Avesnes to suggest any special theological depth. But here, in a neglected corner of a half-ruined building, is perhaps the final statement of the radical depth of Christian faith. That the tortured body, around which all reality turns, will call the monsters too; that this is a love so absolute that it may gather back in all that was scattered. That the woman and the dragon may stand there together, returned to the tree of life.

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