Revelations



Art of the Apocalypse


 

   
Gothic Art Map
 
   
   
Exploration:
Revelations (Art of the Apocalypse)
 
 
    Introduction    
    Visions of the World to Come    
    Angels of the Apocalypse    
    The Four Horsemen and the Seven Seals    
    The Beasts, Antichrist, and the Women    
    Judgment Day    
    The Devil and the Damned    
    A New Heaven and a New Earth    
    APPENDIX
 
   
    Exploration: Gothic Era  (Gothic and Early Renaissance)
 
 

 


THE BEASTS, ANTICHRIST,


AND THE WOMEN
 

 
And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.

Revelation 13:1
 

NO REVELATION IMAGERY HAS ELICITED MORE WILDLY CREATIVE VISUAL

interpretation or more contradictory textual analysis than the various beasts. There are good beasts, and there are bad beasts. The good beasts—holy beings also traditionally known as the four living creatures—can be traced back to the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel. The prophet sees a vision of wheels (members of the angelic hierarchy) with four faces: "They four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle" (Ezekiel 1:10;).
 In the fourth chapter of Revelation, where John describes one of his visions of heaven, similar figures worship at the foot of Christ's throne. The same four beasts were adapted by the early church as symbols for the evangelists: the man (metamorphosed into an angel) stands for Matthew, the lion for Mark, the ox for Luke, and the eagle for John—the presumed author of Revelation. According to Revelation, they (like the heavenly seraphim) each have six wings and are "full of eyes within"—details that artists only rarely depicted, although the beasts themselves were popular subjects.
The bad beasts have an even older source, in ancient Near Eastern combat myths explaining the origins of the world. In those myths (also echoed in Genesis), water and aquatic monsters represent chaos, whereas the earth represents the opposing force of order. In Revelation, both the red dragon (with his seven crowned heads and ten horns) and the beast that rises from the sea (with his seven heads and ten crowned horns) originate in that earlier symbol of chaos—a source later made explicit when the dragon attempts to drown the "woman clothed in the sun". She is saved only because the "earth opened her mouth, and swallowed up the flood which the dragon cast out of his mouth" (12:16).


               

Raphael (1483-1520)
The Vision of Ezekiel
1518

           


Luca Signorelli (1450-1523)
The Devil and the Antichrist,
from
The Last Judgment
, c. 1499-1502
Fresco. Cathedral, Orvieto, Italy

The significance of the dragon and the beast from the sea has been much debated. Within the text itself one interpretation is offered to John by an angel: the seven heads are said to represent seven mountains and seven kings; the ten horns refer to ten kings who will rule with the beast for one hour. Depicting the multiple heads has long tested the ingenuity of artists.
 Over the centuries, as Revelation has been read in the ever-changing light of history and politics, the possible real-life identity of the kings has shifted. Many scholars believe that John identified the beast from the sea with Nero, murderous ruler of the Roman Empire and persecutor of Christians, who committed suicide in a.d. 68 by stabbing himself in the throat. Soon after Nero's death there were widespread rumors that he had risen from the dead, and the passage in which John says, "And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast" (13:3) would surely have been understood as an allusion to Nero at the time Revelation was written.
Nowhere in Revelation is the name Antichrist used; it appears in the New Testament only in 1 and 2 John, although Mark also refers to "false Christs." Nonetheless, readers have long linked the beast from the sea with Antichrist—the evil being who, it was believed, would help Satan rule over the world in the last days before Christ's return. He was not Satan himself but Satan's servant, although their identities often blur and merge. In the early years of Christianity, when belief in the immediate second coming of Christ was fervently espoused by his followers, the existence of an opposing Antichrist helped explain the delay in Christ's appearance.
When portrayed as the beast from the sea, Antichrist was "like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority" (13:2). (These characteristics are taken from the four great beasts from the sea envisioned in the Book of Daniel.)
But artists have also given Antichrist human form—most notably in Luca Signorelli's striking vignette of Satan and Antichrist  within his Last Judgment frescoes in Orvieto Cathedral. The horned and winged devil whispers into Antichrist's ear as he preaches in the town square; notice how Antichrist's left arm looks like a continuation of the devil's own body.Nowhere in Revelation is the name Antichrist used; it appears in the New Testament only in 1 and 2 John, although Mark also refers to "false Christs." Nonetheless, readers have long linked the beast from the sea with Antichrist—the evil being who, it was believed, would help Satan rule over the world in the last days before Christ's return. He was not Satan himself but Satan's servant, although their identities often blur and merge. In the early years of Christianity, when belief in the immediate second coming of Christ was fervently espoused by his followers, the existence of an opposing Antichrist helped explain the delay in Christ's appearance.
When portrayed as the beast from the sea, Antichrist was "like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority" (13:2). (These characteristics are taken from the four great beasts from the sea envisioned in the Book of Daniel.)
But artists have also given Antichrist human form—most notably in Luca Signorelli's striking vignette of Satan and Antichrist  within his Last Judgment frescoes in Orvieto Cathedral. The horned and winged devil whispers into Antichrist's ear as he preaches in the town square; notice how Antichrist's left arm looks like a continuation of the devil's own body.




 

      


Fra Angelico and Luca Signorelli
The Last Judgment,
 c. 1499-1502
Fresco. Cathedral, Orvieto, Italy

 
 

Andrea Bonaiuti da Firenze
(1343-1377)
Descent of Christ to Limbo
[detail]
Fresco, 1365-1368
Cappella Spagnuolo,
Santa Maria Novella, Florence

As with the beasts, there are good women in Revelation and there are wicked ones, serving as opponents to and allies of the beasts. The woman clothed with the sun makes her first appearance at the same point (in chapter 12) as the great red dragon, and their immediate conflict symbolizes the battle between good and evil. The woman (identified by many commentators as a symbol of Israel or Jerusalem) is preparing to give birth; the dragon stands before her, ready to devour the newborn baby (symbol of Christ and the church). As soon as her child is born, he is whisked up to the safety of God's throne—a sequence of events illustrated with great clarity in one of the sixty-nine tapestries from the Apocalypse of Angers.

 
 

The Woman Who Is Going to Give Birth and the Great Dragon Wanting to Devour the Infant,
from The Apocalypse of Angers,
designed by LeanBondol and woven by Nicolas de Bataille, c.1373-81.
Tapestry.

 

As veneration of the Virgin Mary became more intense within the Catholic Church, particularly after the Protestant Reformation, the woman clothed with the sun became a popular symbol of Mary, who was often depicted with the "moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars" (Revelation 12:1). The moon may have links to the ancient virgin goddess Diana, symbolizing both chastity and the triumph of Christianity over paganism; the twelve stars relate to the twelve tribes of Israel and to the twelve signs of the zodiac.

William A.Blayney
(1917-1986)
Headed Lion-Beast with  Horns Coming Ashore
1960

William A.Blayney
(1917-1986)
Anti-Christ on Globe
1961




 

 

 


William Blake (1757-1827)
The Great Red Dragon
and the Woman Clothed with the Sun
1810

 

In striking contrast to the celestial attributes of the woman clothed with the sun are the gaudy accoutrements of the whore of Babylon—clad in purple and scarlet, gold and pearls, and riding a seven-headed, ten-horned red beast Throughout Revelation, Babylon (capital of the Chaldean Empire, known as Babel in Hebrew) serves as a stand-in for Rome (capital of the Roman Empire, which dominated the Western world at the time Revelation was written). An angel explains to John that the seven heads of the beast ridden by the whore equal seven mountains—that is, the seven hills of Rome.
 The use of Babylon as a symbol for evil harks back to earlier apocalyptic literature, such as the Book of Daniel, which recounts the experiences of the Jews during their Babylonian exile after King Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 b.c. Babylon stood for all heathen cultures and the temptations of assimilation—particularly the pleasures of material well-being—as opposed to the rewards of the spirit and fidelity to the true faith. The fornication that the whore is said to have committed with the kings of the earth stands for spiritual rather than sexual betrayal by those who abandoned monotheism to worship the idols of other cultures, whether Babylonian or Roman. With the Reformation and the Protestants' increasingly heated denunciations of the Catholic Church, the whore of Babylon came to be a symbol of the papacy, and Antichrist, of the pope himself. Her fall and that of Babylon, chronicled at the end of Revelation, was read by Protestants as signifying what they believed would be the inevitable collapse of the Catholic Church.

 

William Blake (1757-1827)
The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea
1805

 
 

William Blake (1757-1827)
The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun
1809

William Blake (1757-1827)
The Number of the Beast Is 666
1805

 

 

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