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Apocalyptic Woman

14.05.2007: King's College Chapel, Aberdeen.


Et signum magnum paruit in caelo mulier amicta sole et luna sub pedibus eius et in capite eius corona stellarum duodecim Apoc 12:1


Despite appearances, this carving of the Virgin of the Apocalypse hasn't been in the King's College Chapel from the beginning. In fact it was bequeathed to the University by Douglas Strachan in 1944.


The relief was originally polychrome (i.e. coloured). It was produced somewhere in the German Rhineland in the late 15th century. It shows the woman clothed in the sun and standing on the moon of Revelation 12:1.


In the four corners of the carving are four pre-Christian "types" (i.e. prefigurations) of the Virgin Mary. These come from patristic and medieval commentaries on the bible and on classical history.


In the top left is the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses. The relevant verse " ... and it was not consumed" Exod 3:2 was taken to be a type of Mary's virginity which, it was claimed, she retained ante partum, in partu et post partum (before, in and after the birth of Christ).


In the top right the prophet Ezekiel is pointing to the closed gates of the Temple in Jerusalem (see Ezek 44:1-2). The Temple represent's Mary's body, which held God incarnate, while the locked gate represents her intact virginity.


In the bottom right is Gideon kneeling by a fleece covered in dew, which God had given him a sign of his impending victory over the Midianites (Judg 6:36-40). Again, the dew falling on the pure fleece was taken as a type of the Word of God descending from heaven to take flesh in Mary's womb.


Finally, in the bottom right (partially obscured in this picture) are two figures: the Tiburtine Sibyl, pointing to the Virgin, and the Emperor Augustus, seated in front of her. It was widely believed that the coming of Christ was prefigured and prophesied in pagan antiquity. Among these pagan prophets were the Sibyls. The 13th cent. text Mirabilia Urbis Romae refers to the prophecy of the Tiburtine Sibyl, who told Augustus to build a temple on the site on the Capitol now occupied by the church of St. Mary Ara Coeli (Altar of Heaven).


Augustus' Temple was also called Ara Coeli. and the alleged connection between the two was explained in the prophecy attributed to the Sibyl:


And in that very moment the sky opened, and a great light fell upon him, and Octavian saw in the heavens a beautiful young woman with a crown, on a very beautiful altar, who carried in her arms a child. And Octavian was very amazed, and heard a voice saying: "This is the altar of the Son of God". And Octavian threw himself to the ground at once, and worshipped Christ.


He's not quite got around to throwing himself on the ground here!

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Taken on May 14, 2007