The Wings of Rubens’ Virgin as Woman of the Apocalypse
On the 28th of June 1577, Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens was born in Siegen, Westphalia (now Germany). The Getty Museum in Los Angeles holds one his more unusual works, an oil sketch entitled Blessed Virgin Mary as Woman of the Apocalypse (ca. 1623-24, Oil on panel, 25 x 19 3/8 in). The piece is inspired by a figure from Chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation (ca. 95 AD) and was meant to serve as the modello for the vast altarpiece that Rubens executed for the high altar of the cathedral at Freising, now preserved in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich. The bishop who commissioned it wanted a subject “applicable to all feast days of the Blessed Virgin”. The wings that are attached to the Virgin are now more clearly identifiable as “eagle’s wings.”
The Virgin’s identity has been the subject of a wide variety of interpretations. She is depicted as wearing a white dress and blue mantle. “On the orb of the moon on which she stands she crushes a serpent with her right foot, a reference to Genesis 3:15. To the left the archangel Michael, in red with armour and wielding a lightning bolt, and two angels, one with a lance, subdue a hydra-headed, reddish dragon (the “great red dragon, having seven heads”) and other demons that tumble into a fiery abyss below (Rev. 12:7-9: “And there was war in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. . . . And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world; he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him”). At the right are two other angels, and above, God the Father commands another angel to attach wings to the Virgin’s shoulders (Rev. 12:14: “And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness”).”(Drawn by the Brush: Oil Sketches by Peter Paul Rubens, Catalogue Entry by Peter C. Sutton).
“Peter Paul Rubens contrasted good with evil by juxtaposing the agony and gruesomeness of the demons as they fall into hell with the Virgin and Child rising heavenward at the right. Rapid and gestural brush strokes lend immediacy and drama to the scene. We know that when Rubens was doing his own work, church authorities asked him to detach the wings from the Virgin. In the final Rubens versions, both as an altarpiece at the cathedral in Freising and as the careful Getty sketch, the wings are being attached by an angel. Rubens had complained when authorities had objected to the wings, saying that Albrecht Dürer and other artists had shown her as an angel with wings attached.” (Linda B. Hall, ‘Images of Women and Power’, Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 77, No. 1, February 2008).
It is very interesting and intriguing to find Rubens using and invoking Dürer in connection with this archetypical counter-reformatory altarpiece. We are left with the question of why Rubens would have depicted Mary in this way, and one wonders if the winged Virgin, akin to an angel, might not be theologically suspect? From Willibald Sauerlander’s The Catholic Rubens: Saints and Martyrs (The Getty Institute, 2014) we learn that, “The subject that was ultimately chosen would directly connect the bishop’s wish for a universally applicable depiction of Mary to the struggle and victory of the Catholic Church in the war against the Protestant heresy. To be sure, having Mary appear in the sky as the Woman of the Apocalypse with a wreath of stars encircling her radiant head created a vague association with the Feast of the Assumption on 15 August, the most important of all Marian holidays. But the Woman of the Apocalypse, her hair and garments flying in the wind as she simultaneously evades and triumphs over the seven-headed dragon, was no Assunta but rather the symbol of the Church threatened by heretics and saved by the succor of heaven. This brought into play the political situation during the 1620s. The victory of the Catholic League in the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 was attributed to the aid and protection of the Virgin. Nowhere is that clearer than in Rome, where in 1620 the mission church of the Carmelites was renamed Santa Maria della Vittoria in commemoration of the victory. On its altar could be seen the image of the Virgin carried into battle by the Catholics at White Mountain.”