Monday, November 19, 2007

The Rainbow of Revelation

J.M.J. + O.B.T. + M.G.R.*

St John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos

(Right wing of the Dutch master Hans Memling triptych from 1474-1479)

According to legend, St John was first immersed in boiling oil and then banished to the island of Patmos (we see him embarking on the boat). Upon his return to Ephesus, he raised Drusiana from the (first capital), baptised the converted philosopher Crato (in the domed building at the very back) and drank unharmed from the poisoned chalice (second capital). These scenes are given a Roman setting with the Colosseum in the background.

The vision of the Revelation or Apocalypse is presented in the right wing with a spatial and dynamic unity that precisely follows the key moments of the text. Banished to the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea, St John sits with a book on his lap, and dips a pen into an ink-pot, his pen-knife at the ready. He stares upwards, where his visions take shape in the air, on the water and on the adjoining land, in what was for its time a new and unique total spectacle. God appears beneath a stone canopy supported by columns, wearing a red and green robe. He has a greenish glow about his face and hands and is surrounded by a rainbow. Seven lamps burn around the canopy and flames shoot from the rainbow. The twenty-four elders (only thirteen of whom are visible) are seated around the throne wearing golden crowns and dressed in white robes. The throne stands on a crystal surface in which everything is reflected. God is accompanied by four beasts covered with eyes and with six wings: one like a lion, one like an ox, one like a man and one like an eagle. The vision of heaven as a whole is enclosed in a second circular rainbow. (((Not unlike Dante's Paradisio)))

The subsequent vision of the Lamb and the sealed book is incorporated in the first. God's right hand rests on a book with seven seals. An angel at the front of the scene points to it and addresses John. A lamb with seven horns and eyes holds the book between its front paws. Memling took another detail - `Each of the elders had a harp. .. and they were singing a new song' (Rev. 5:8-9) - and adjusted it slightly, giving them a variety of musical instruments. The Lamb then breaks six seals, one after the other, causing the four horsemen to appear arid unleashing cosmic disasters. The sequence of the horsemen, each on a little island, reads from left to right: a white rider with a crown on a white horse who looses off an arrow to his rear; a knight in black armour armed with a sword on a light brown horse (the text refers to a red horse); a figure with a long robe on a black horse, carrying a pair of scales; and a pale brown horse ridden by , followed by a burning monster's head, in whose mouth human bodies shrivel. Memling did not include the breaking of the fifth seal. The breaking of the sixth seal causes an eclipse of the sun and the stars to fall from the sky. Rich and poor flee into caves. The natural phenomena can be witnessed high above in the sky, while to 's right we see the figures of a slave, a king and a freeman hiding in rocky crags. When the seventh seal is broken, seven angels are given seven trumpets. Memling included this episode at the top of the circular rainbow. The trumpets are handed out by an arm that emerges from behind a cloud in the topmost corner. Another angel kneels before an altar at the bottom of this mandorla. He spreads incense from a golden censer towards the figure of God. Glowing coals lie on the altar, which he will shortly throw to the earth, causing peals of thunder and earthquakes.



Sincerely yours in Jesus and Mary,
Mike Rizzio, SOLT

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* - J.M.J. + O.B.T. + M.G.R. stands for: Jesus, Mary and Joseph;
O Beata Trinitas; St. Michael, St. Gabriel and St. Raphael

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