Girona Beatus

Girona Beatus f. 63r, Prologue: on the Synagogue: the woman seated upon the beast


f. 63r, Prologue: on the Synagogue: the woman seated upon the beast

This unframed image covers the entire folio and shows a woman in reddish garments as in most Beatus codices holding a gold goblet with three red dots aloft in her right hand whilst her left hand grasps the reins of an English red equine with a pointed muzzle, cloven hoofs and a snake’s tail. The woman has long hair, a veil and reddish and blue garments. Behind her is a pale bush with a large, highly decorative tree in front with a stylised trunk and crown with a red circle surrounded by golden leaves and dark flowers. The word “mulier” can be read at the bottom on the left. In comparison with other Beatus manuscripts, the image of the woman upon the beast in the Gerona Beatus has suffered no damage as a result of the fear of the evil eye mentioned earlier or any anger unleashed against the one who represents the sum of all abominations, thereby demonstrating the power of images over the readers of certain manuscripts.

This painting is inspired by that of the Great Whore of Babylon (Rev. 17: 3) except that, in this instance, she is not riding a monster with seven heads and ten horns, as described in the text of the Revelation (Rev. 17: 3) and depicted later on folio 209r. The image of a woman riding a quadruped has had precedents since Antiquity, particularly in Roman art, in certain goddesses originating in the eastern Mediterranean riding animals that could have been used as a model, such as Isis, with a horn of plenty in one hand riding a dog called Sothis in Egypt, the symbol of Sirius, one noteworthy mention of which, due to its similarity with the image in the Gerona Beatus, is a relief dated c. 200 AD in the temple at Savaria, showing the goddess holding a sistrum and riding a dog. The author of the painting in the Gerona codex obviously never knew of this work but there are many very similar figures such as: a coin dated in the reign of Valentinianus I (364-375); Cybele, the Phrygian goddess of fertility who, amongst other attributes, held a recipient in her hand, and was sometimes depicted riding a lion; and Tanith, a Carthaginian goddess also known as Regina Coelestis, who is similar to Cybele and is shown upon a lion, particularly on early third-century coins. These goddesses are also depicted in association with a tree signifying the tree of life: Cybele in particular is linked, via her relationship with Attis, to pine trees. However, taking into account that the original meaning of the tree had been lost by the 10th century, the fact that it appeared next to the woman upon the beast may have to do with her being a sinner because in some of the Biblical texts quoted by Beatus the concept of fornication is, like idolatry, associated with the image of the leafy tree, as is the concept of power , which is in keeping with the image of Babylon to which the text from Daniel refers. Furthermore, bearing in mind the proximity of the image of the woman upon the beast to the great whore of Babylon, it must be remembered that there is a relationship between this wicked city and Cybele, since the former, in line with the Septuagint, used to have the title of “Great mother of gods and goddesses” upon her forehead, the same title the Romans used for Cybele , which would apparently explain why this goddess was used as the model for both the prostitute of Babylon and the woman upon the beast. It must also however be remembered that, as described in the explanation given on folios 63v-64r, “DE [MU]LIERE SVP[ER] BESTIA”, the woman upon the beast signifies “vice, evil deeds, pleasures, fornication, impurity, greed, jealousy, theft, envy, vanity, pride, gluttony [...] This is the wicked woman riding the beast whom we mentioned before” and is deemed to be an “anti-Church” as revealed by Beatus’ text: “And she gives one man a sip and another a draught from this cup of idolatry. The cup is of gold because they claim to be Christians but with the deeds we have summarised in the Synagogue they stray from Christ and the Church, for as just as Christ is the head of the Church, so is their leader the devil. And just as the Church forms a single body with Christ so do these form, together with the devil, a single, structured body.” As the “anti-Church”, she is depicted with a cup, a commonplace attribute for the personification of the Church which appeared for the first time in Bauit, holding a large chalice symbolising the New Covenant in front of her breast (Mt. 26: 28). Carolingian and Ottonian art make this image more specific by placing her at the foot of the cross . The snake’s tail alludes to the beast as a dragon, the snake that tempted Eve, whilst the red colour of the woman’s dress and the beast’s body may refer to the blood of the martyrs.

Reinterpreted, Muslim influence is clearly present not only in the circular crown of the tree but also in the composition: if the figure of the woman upon the beast was reversed and repeated, it would be the traditional Muslim motif of two riders raising their hand to the branches of a tree or a plant to pick fruit from them, as can be seen in the ivory, caliphal chest belonging to al-Mughira, the son of Abd al-Rahman III, made in 968 (Paris, Musée du Louvre).

Carlos Miranda García-Tejedor
Doctor in History
(Fragment of the Girona Beatus commentary volume)

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