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Advent Calendar Day 21: A Doomsday Special: The Virgin of the Apocalypse

‘The Woman Clothed with the Sun’

Amongst the most sublime and exalted scenes in the Revelation, is the “great portent” that will appear in heaven to mark the beginning of the end-times “[a] woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” The woman, pregnant and already in labor, is stalked by “a great red dragon,” which waits to devour the newborn child as soon as she gives birth. But the archangel Michael – a figure who first appears in the Book of Daniel, John’s (the Beloved, the author of the Book of Revelation) single favorite source in the Hebrew Bible – makes war on the red dragon, who is here and now revealed to be Eve’s original tempter, “that old serpent, called the Devil and Satan.”

Conventional readings of Revelation see the woman as the Virgin Mary and the newborn infant as Jesus, “a man who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron” and who “was caught up unto God, and to his throne.” But it is also possible to discern less orthodox origins and meanings. St John’s mind sets to work on the lines of very old mythic pattern. John could have borrowed the figure of the woman from pagan astrology – “the Lady of the Zodiac” who is “crowned with the twelve constellations.” Other scholars see the goddess Artemis, who was worshipped in such splendor in the Artemesium at Ephesus. Precisely the same figure is found in sacred myths all over the ancient world – “a high goddess with astral attributes: the sun is her garment, the moon her footstool, the stars her crown.” Even the dire predicament of a laboring woman beset by a ravening monster is a familiar motif in pagan iconography: Isis and the scorpions, Leto and the python. In each of these myths the dragon seeks the child, not yet born, in order to devour or kill him. The woman, still pregnant, is pursued for the child she carries. She gives birth with the dragon only moments away, and the male child she has just delivered is caught up to the Heavens, safe from the dragon’s reach.

Some scholars insist that such pagan associations are mostly in the mind of the beholder. And, in any event, none of the pagan subtext that might be teased out of the book of Revelation need be seen as evidence of hypocrisy on John’s part. Rather, it is a sign of John’s savvy that his “language arsenal” is not confined to Jewish sources. John co-ops this imperial propaganda to claim that the true golden age will come with the messianic reign of Christ.

‘Immaculate Conception’

The classical interpretation of the Immaculate Conception, depicted encircled by the sun’s rays, crowned with stars with an overturned crescent at her feet and the head of the crushed dragon, was first defined by Francisco Pacheco (born 1564, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain—died 1654, Sevilla). Father-in-law to Diego Velasquez, Pacheco was a censor of religious paintings when he formulated this iconography of the Immaculate Conception. She was also to wear the girdle of St. Francis as a tribute to the congregation, which worked hard for the recognition of the doctrine. Pacheco’s El Arte de la Pintura, su antiguedad y grandeza served as a handbook for all artists, discussing relevant details as a color mixture, symbols and manner to be adopted for specific saints. It was a Franciscan, Pope Sixtus IV, who ordered the building of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican to honor Mary’s conception.

On June 24, 1574 Miguel Lopez de Legazpi took possession of the entire city of Manila. He established the city of Manila as the seat of the government of the Philippines. A parish church under the patronage of “La Purisima Imaculada Concepcion de Nuestra Señora” (The Immaculate Conception of Our Lady) was erected. Reverend Juan de Villanueva, a secular priest, Chaplain of the army was appointed first parish priest.

In the Philippines, near perfect interpretations of the Immaculate Conception are seen in small ivory, or a combination of wood-and-ivory figurines, which may have been carved during the mid-nineteenth century. In later images, Mary (she never appears with wings in Philippine iconography) is generally standing on a globe, which is entwined with a snake in place of the dragon. The tips of the crescent are plugged in, like a pair of horns, on both sides of the base. The stars and the sun are sometimes expressed in the crown or halo around her hair cast in gold or silver. Nowhere in Philippine imagery does the overturned crescent of Pacheco’s appear, but many Laguna images picked out Pacheco’s sun-motif and adopted it more decoratively, depicting the sun against the mantle, like an embroidered face. The particular style used in depicting the sun resembles the Mexican sun-motif, representing the benevolent face of the sun. This may be one concrete influence derived from the New World. In these representations, the Virgin is crowned and the snake lies at her feet but the moon does not appear.

‘Virgin of the Apocalypse’

In the second half of the eighteenth century a mestizo from Equador, Bernardo Legarda, carved the Woman of the Apocalypse. It shows a resplendent winged and crowned Mary holding a kris-like javelin, its arrowed tip aimed at the snake coiled at her feet. She stands above a crescent and a lily mounted on a globe; the lily, in full bloom, catches in its petals the entire imagery. The symbolism in the work is clear. Mary’s purity, symbolized by the lily, overcomes the serpent. She rises like the avenging Virgin of the Apocalypse to vanquish the serpent.


A History of the End of the World by Jonathan Kirsch

Madonnas of the Philippines

Revelation: Art of the Apocalypse

Philippine Sainted Imagery: Relics of Our Cultural and Religious Heritage by EAA

Image: Philippine Religious Carvings in Ivory by Esperanza Bunag Gatbonton