Woman Clothed with the Sun

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In a passage full of reminiscences of the Old Testament, John describes the vision of a "great sign" in the sky: the futile attempt of Satan, the "great red dragon," to destroy the male child to whom a "woman clothed with the sun," with the moon under her feet and a crown of 12 stars on her head (cf. Gn 37.9), gives painful birth; the child is snatched up to the throne of God, while the woman flees to the desert, to "a place prepared by God" (Rv 12.16).

Identity of the Woman. The description is based on the proto-evangelium (Gn 3.15), which should be taken as the starting point for a correct understanding of Rv 12.1-6. The identity of the "male child" born of the woman is certain: the Messiah, Jesus Christ, not only individually, but also collectively, as united with the Church; this is clear from the context and from the terms and Biblical allusions used in describing him. Almost certainly it is not the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem that John had in mind. Since immediately after his "birth" the child is "caught up to God and to his throne" (12.5), Christ's redemptive death, followed by His Resurrection and Ascension, is meant. The birth pangs, then, would be metaphorical for the sufferings of the passion, experienced by the nascent Church in the person of the Apostles (cf. Jn 16.1922).

That the woman is a collective, the Church of God of both the Old and the New Covenants, is recognized by practically all theologians. This view best accounts for all the data of the vision; it harmonizes with Gn 3.15 and it is familiar to the mentality of Biblical authors, evidenced in the personification of Zion or Israel as a woman (e.g., Is 66.711) or the Church as a bride (2 Cor 11.2; Eph5.2327; Rv 21.2, 9).

Mariological Importance. In what way, then, does the text refer to Mary? The words of Rv 12.1 are used as the Introit verse of the new Mass of the Assumption and are cited in the apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus of Nov. 1, 1950 [Acta Apostolicae Sedis 42 (1950) 763]. Patristic evidence can be traced as far back as St. irenaeus [Adv. haer. 3.22.7; see F. M. Braun, "La Femme vêtue du soleil (Apoc. xii)," Revue Thomiste 55 (Paris 1955) 639669, esp. 642], but a Mariological interpretation was far from unanimous among the Fathers. In post-Reformation exegesis the ecclesial interpretation predominated. Today many scholars see a double reference intended by the author: the Church and Mary, the mother of Christ and of the Christian people (Rv 12.17); moreover, the text suggests that Mary is the type of the Church. These double references are frequent in John's Gospel, in Revelation, and in other apocalyptic literature.

In Christian Art. The iconography of the woman clothed with the sun goes back to 9th-century illuminations in the Apocalypses from Treves and Cambrai, in which the woman, or the Virgin-Church, is represented without her child and praying for protection against the dragon. An Apocalypse from Bamberg of the 1lth century portrays the woman with an enormous diadem made up of the sun and 12 stars, protecting her son from the seven-headed dragon. Later depictions introduce other elements of the Apocalypse vision, including the man-child's escape to heaven, the flight from the dragon, and the angel giving wings to the woman (Rv 12.1317). Albrecht Dürer emphasizes the monstrosity of the dragon in his engraving of the scene and reduces the woman to a small figure with wings and a crown of stars. The banner of the Carmelite Order, which depicts the immaculate Virgin standing upon a crescent moon, served to popularize the woman of the Apocalypse.

See Also: mary, blessed virgin, iconography of.

Bibliography: b. j. le frois, The Woman Clothed with the Sun (Rv 12 ) Individual or Collective? (Rome 1954). p. prigent, Revelation 12: Histoire de l'exégèse (Beiträge zur Geschichte der biblischen Exegesis 2; Tübingen 1959). l. rÉau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 6 v. (Paris 195559) 2.2:708711.

[e. f. siegman]