There’s been a lot of flag waving lately. On July 1st, Canadians commemorated the 146th birthday of their country, and on July 4th, Americans celebrated their Independence from Britain 237 years ago. On one flag, a red maple leaf; on the other, stars and stripes–flags reflect the character and history of the nations they represent, to some extent. One flag in particular has long intrigued me: the flag of the European Union (EU) with its circle of twelve gold stars on a blue background. Something that has perplexed me is that, no matter how many countries join the EU, the number of stars on the flag remains constant–twelve. On July 1, Croatia became the 28th member of the EU. But there are no plans to alter the EU flag, to my knowledge. Why not 28 stars? Compare this with the American flag: The US flag initially had thirteen stars to coincide with the Thirteen Colonies, but today’s flag has fifty stars, equal to the number of states in the present Union.
To understand why the number of stars on the EU flag stays at twelve—and will in all likelihood remain so–one needs to turn to the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. Four female figures make an appearance in John’s Apocalypse: a woman referred to as “Jezebel” in 2:18-29, a woman “clothed with the sun” in chapter 12, the whore “Babylon” in chapter 17, and the “bride” in 21:1-22:6. It is the woman “clothed with the sun” in chapter 12 that provides the clue to the conundrum of the EU flag.
John reports that a “great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child, and she cried out, being in labor; and in pain to give birth” (12:1-2 NASB). John sees a great red dragon positioned in front of the travailing woman, ready and waiting to devour her baby when she gives birth (12:3-4). But the dragon’s design is thwarted: The woman delivers a male child who is caught up to heaven (12:5).
Making sense of apocalyptic symbols usually poses a serious challenge, but that is not the case with the “male child.” Most Bible scholars agree that woman’s son represents the Messiah, Jesus. But when it comes to the identity of the mother, there is no consensus among scholars. Some identify the woman with the Church. But the problem with such an interpretation is that the Church is pictured as producing Christ, when it was Christ who produced the Church! Others identify the woman with Israel–or more precisely, with God’s community of believers within Israel, those who awaited the advent of the Messiah (in my view, the correct interpretation). Her crown of twelve gold stars therefore most likely represents the twelve tribes of Israel.
The interpretation favoured by most Roman Catholic scholars, on the other hand, is that the woman wearing the crown of twelve stars is Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is because of this identification of the woman in Revelation 12 with Mary that the Roman Catholic Church has given Mary the title, “Queen of Heaven.” There is a plethora of religious art depicting Mary as Queen of Heaven, with her ever-present halo or crown of twelve stars. And it is Mary’s 12-star crown which is the source of the circle of stars on the EU flag!
Image credit: http://all thingscatholic.tumblr.com
The flag we now identify with the EU was originally designed as a symbol for the Council of Europe (CoE) by Arsène Heitz in collaboration with Paul M. G. Lévy. The CoE was a union of European states set up at the end of WWII as a means (it was hoped) of maintaining the peace. Heitz, born in Strasbourg, site of the European Parliament, worked in the postal service of the CoE. A sign of his devotion to Mary: Heitz was a member of the Order of the Miraculous Medal. The medal in question, regarded by Marian devotees as miraculous, had been designed by Catherine Labouré, a novice of the Daughters of Charity, after she experienced a Marian apparition in 1830. The Marian apparition instructed her, Labouré claimed, to make and distribute a medal. Those who wore Labouré’s medal would obtain special grace through the intercession of Mary at the hour of their death. Heitz wore such a medal around his neck. Interestingly, the medal has twelve stars inscribed on it.
Heitz drew his design in collaboration with Lévy, the Director of Information at the CoE and a Jewish Holocaust survivor who later converted to Catholicism. Heitz and Lévy’s symbol was adopted by the CoE on 8 December 1955, which happened to coincide with the Catholic Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At the time, Heitz said he made the number of stars twelve in order to symbolize completeness. Only later would he acknowledge that his source of inspiration was, in fact, the woman with the 12-star crown in the Book of Revelation. In 1985, the European Economic Community (EEC), forerunner of the European Union, adopted the Council of Europe’s symbol as their flag.
How ironic it is that a flag inspired by Mary now waves over post-Christian, secular Europe! EU officials dismiss the Marian connection as ‘myth’. Some observers, on the other hand, take the Marian flag as a sign of an emerging religious/political empire in Europe, a new ‘Roman’ Empire. Only time will tell. One thing for certain: The Marian connection with the EU flag is definitely a fascinating one.