In the book of Revelation the apostle John relates his vision of the church while he was imprisoned on the isle of Patmos. One of the splendid images he beheld was of a woman, “A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” (Revelation 12:1) Most have interpreted this woman to be a sign of the church as well as reminiscent of Mary. Mary gave birth to Jesus as the church “gives birth” to the word of God throughout the world. This image has of course appealed to artists of all times and can still be seen in the banner of the Virgin of Guadeloupe.
Recently I visited the National Gallery of Art to explore this image in their collection of paintings. Walking from painting to painting one feels as if Mary is evolving right before your eyes. From a symbolic image copied with little variation in the Byzantine era to a more dynamic character of a narrative still clothed in her symbolic imagery to a personality with a subtle nod to tradition until the stars and sun have disappeared altogether and Mary is no longer a sign of the church herself but a sentimental portrait of an individual’s imagination.
It struck me that the curved throne resembles a crescent moon, the halo the sun and the linear folds of cloth are like the striations of starlight.
Here the cloth is very similar to the Byzantine style. The sea shell alcove in the background is a common theme. Perhaps this is because an alcove created a natural frame but also perhaps because the lines reinforce the imagery of the sun. Around the alcove are the circling starry hosts.
Here we see a very lasting image. Mary is cloaked in blue to remind us of the sky with a single star on her shoulder. She is still adorned with a halo – a halo and a crown are both types of the sun. Both symbolize honor and distinction. A halo is usually a mark of heavenly distinction and a crown a mark of earthly distinction. In the Byzantine era square halos were used to designate earthly authority.
Here the gold is not only beautiful and rich but is reminiscent of the glory of heavenly bodies. Mary is not clothed in blue, instead the cloth is decorated with a star-like motif.
Here the picture is much more about characters. With Mary and Jesus are Saint Jerome, Saint Catherine of Alexandria and various angels. Mary still is cloaked with symbolism in a blue cloth with golden stars. Her head is also surrounded with a golden halo that reads, “Hail, maiden full of grace,” part of the angel Gabriel’s greeting to her when he came to announce her pregnancy.
Here Mary is cloaked once again in blue with stars and her halo is clearly symbolic with the angel’s greeting inscribed once again. This is a tradition that seems to hold for a while until eventually she is simply clothed in blue and only adorned with a tiny halo or none at all as in the paintings below.
This last painting is not at all a symbolic one tied to the tradition that had come before. Although much more “realistic” like a photograph it is portraying the personal experience of a man adoring the virgin Mary. Mary’s gaze is gentle and seems to urge the viewer to do as the man. During the Counter Reformation the Roman Catholic church paid many famous painters (including Peter Paul Rubens) to create images that promoted Roman Catholic distinctives like worshiping Mary and the doctrine of transubstantiation.