Updated: Sep 16, 2021
The number seven is loaded with significance and crops up as much in ancient texts as in art over the centuries. Leto gave birth to Artemis and Apollo after just seven months of pregnancy. She gave birth on the seventh day of the seventh month. In Japan, the festival of Tanabata, the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi, is celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh (lunar) month. There are traditionally said to be seven colours in a rainbow. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the world was created in six days and the seventh day became a day of rest. The flood subsided on the seventh day in the story of Noah. Revelation also features the number, in particular with a reference to the seven churches of Asia Minor. Why seven? Perhaps it is connected to the fact that there are roughly four periods of seven days in a lunation. As the Pixies sang, perhaps the divine is seven. Here, I'd like to look at how the number seven is associated with images of the Virgin, in particular with van Eyck's painting of the Annunciation, and how this might be compared to images from other artistic traditions. The number seven may be associated with the constellations Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Ophiuchus and Scorpio.
This painting by Jan van Eck, with it's long vertical lines, suggests a connection being made between earthly beings and heaven. It is the appearance of seven delicate golden rays beaming through an impossibly high window which confirms that a power from above, hidden from our sight, is making a connection with the main person in the painting: Mary. This divine nature of this communication is confirmed both by a bright stained glass window directly above the Virgin's head depicting her future son, Jesus, and the figure of the Archangel Gabriel to her right (our left). The number seven is everywhere confirmed: three arches above the Virgin's head, and a further four to her side, and this is repeated in the higher level of internal windows. The Archangel has rainbow coloured wings, another reference to seven. Finally, there are seven white lilies in a vase in front of the Virgin. It is curious how delicately the seven beams of light have been painted in, as they might have been much more pronounced. Perhaps this is to highlight the elusive nature of the divine. In the architecture of the building, which highlights the boundary between this world and the next, the number seven is represented as three plus four. So it is intriguing to see on the carpet at the Virgin's feet a reference to three times four, as the twelve figures of the zodiac. Only a handful of the twelve are shown. In fact Sagittarius and Leo are the most prominent, together with Scorpio at the Archangel's feet.
This image of the Greek Cassiopeia comes from a Persian manuscript. It is a completely different image from the previous one, and of course from a much earlier time and a different tradition altogether, and yet the seven rays are there. Or at least, seven little flames dancing above the seven peaks on Cassiopeia's crown. However, it's difficult to make out the constellation Cassiopeia as we know it today, which is easily identifiable in the night sky, as a sort of 'W' shape. So I wonder if it's not an amalgam of Cassiopeia and Cepheus.
It's always hard to match up constellation outlines as we know them today with drawings from ancient manuscripts. I tried various combinations, and this was one possibility, with the star on Cassiopeia's chest the brightest star of Cepheus. The familiar 'W' shape of Cassiopeia is not easily superimposed on to the image, I tried many different sizes and directions but nothing really worked, the angles were all wrong. One interesting possibility this configuration would bring would be that the two pointer stars of the the Big Dipper would align with the Pole Star and Cassiopeia's chest, just like the rays in the van Eyck painting.
Below is one possibility of interpreting the van Eyck painting in terms of Cassiopeia. Here, the familiar 'W' shape becomes the link between the Archangel and the Virgin's womb. The image of Jesus in the stained glass window becomes the Little Dipper. and God itself becomes... the Big Dipper. The Pole star fits between Mary and the divine and so the seven rays become a stellar path between her and God which matched the arrangement in the sky of the Big Dipper, the Pole star and Cepheus.
Another possibility might be this: here the point of Cepheus, the star Errai, or Gamma Cephei, a binary star system, is placed on the Virgin's chest, and the Pole Star takes the place of a chink of light in the wall.
Taking a little from both possibilities, one stellar interpretation of the painting might be like this:
In this Indian painting, the number seven is represented not by the number of flames on the head but by the number of arms one of the central characters has. Like in the van Eyck painting, the number seven is represented by a group of four and a group of three. However, it seems that, judging by the plant-pot shaped pedestal on which he sits, the extended left leg, and the sort of Milky Way river beneath him, this character is derived from another part of the sky, Ophiuchus. This constellation is often associated with rocks or trees in paintings, so the two trees in the background might echo this. The figure opposite him then would be Virgo. Ophiuchus can be linked to many paintings, and can be associated with divine figures from Jesus to Horus, Saint Michael to Zeus.
This statue of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows, below, could perhaps be echoing Ophiuchus, in the say that the seven armed Agni does, as the seven rays of light from the van Eyck painting have here become seven swords which centre on her chest, looking almost like so many arms.
The Archangel Michael often channels Ophiuchus is art, as in this image below, with the devil standing in for Scorpio. Beneath him are seven tiles. So perhaps the number seven is associated with Ophiuchus as much as it is with the divine generally.
This image below, of the Virgin seated on a chair, surrounded by seven circles, is once again reminiscent of the Persian Cassiopeia, not least because she is sitting on a chair, which is characteristic of many Cassiopeia (and Andromeda) depictions.
The same position is repeated here:
Another possible link between the number seven and the stars is in the constellation Taurus: the Seven Sisters of Pleiades, though it is hard to link it to the images seen so far of the Virgin.
However, one last important possibility to be considered is the the seven heads of the constellation Scorpio, as you can see blow in this image by David Warner Mathisen, whose groundbreaking work on the constellations in myth and art has inspired me so much.
The altarpiece below shows clearly the figure of the Archangel Michael as Ophiuchus spearing the dragon, which represents the constellation Ophiuchus, and has seven heads, just like in many interpretations of the constellation itself.
So another stellar interpretation of the van Eyck painting may simply be with the Archangel Gabriel standing in for Ophiuchus, the Virgin Mary for Virgo, and the cushion and lilies at her feet for Scorpio.