Art of the Apocalypse


Gothic Art Map
Revelations (Art of the Apocalypse)
    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    
    Exploration: Gothic Era  (Gothic and Early Renaissance)







Write the things which thou has seen, and the things which are,
and the things which shall be hereafter.

Revelation 1:19



 These and many other images from the Book of Revelation have infused our language and culture, becoming familiar even to those who have never read the New Testament scripture from which they come. Written in poetic and vividly detailed language, Revelation presents visions of the world to come with such conviction and such specificity that it has inspired countless artists to give form to those visions. That inspiration has yielded some of Western culture's most powerful and perplexing works of art—particularly manuscript illuminations but also frescoes, oil paintings, tapestries, stained glass, and sculpture.
 The Book of Revelation belongs to an ancient tradition of what is called "apocalyptic literature," in which the secrets of the world's future are said to be revealed—a future in which the faithful will be rewarded and the evil will be punished, a future in which "a new heaven and a new earth" will replace the known world. Although popularly understood as denoting a world-ending disaster, in fact the word apocalypse has a far more positive origin: it comes from the Greek word apokalypsis, meaning "the lifting of a veil," or revelation.
Because it promises imminent paradise for worthy believers, apocalyptic literature thrives during periods of social unrest and religious persecution. The belief in a perfected future world to be achieved by a cosmic battle between good and evil goes back to the Persian prophet Zoroaster, but it was particularly intense within Jewish and early Christian communities during the two centuries before Christ's birth and the century following it Only two of the many apocalypses written during that tumultuous period of religious and political transition were ultimately accepted into the biblical canon: Daniel, the last-written book in the Hebrew Bible (c. 169-165 b.c.), and Revelation, which quotes extensively not only from Daniel but also Ezekiel, Isaiah, and other Old Testament prophets.

Hans Burgkmair (1473-1531)
Saint John the Evangelist on Patmos

Jacobello Alberegno
Vision of St. John the Evangelist  on Patmos
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
 Central panel of the Polyptych of the Apocalypse

An apocalypse differs from a prophecy, although both convey information from a divine source. Prophecy is communicated directly to the prophet by God, who often takes visible form, as in Moses' encounter with the burning bush. An apocalyptic message is transmitted through an intermediary—most often an angel (the Greek word for angel means "messenger") and most often in the form of a dream or vision. This visual aspect of apocalypses has made such texts well suited to artistic interpretation.
 The Book of Revelation is so richly complex—in its plot, its characters, and its language—that it resists straightforward summary, much less any one interpretation. Saint Jerome (who translated the Bible into Latin) said of it, aptly, that "Revelation has as many mysteries as it does words." This sense of hidden meanings, of concepts to be revealed only slowly and only to believers, is at the heart of all apocalyptic writing.
 The text begins almost prosaically, with seven letters to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia (in the western part of Asia Minor, roughly equivalent to present-day Turkey). These are written to praise those newly established Christian communities for their accomplishments but also to admonish them for their sins and warn them against the perils of deception and temptation. The narrative then abruptly shifts to a series of violent visions. First comes the opening of seven seals on a heavenly scroll, an event that calls forth the deadly four horsemen of the apocalypse followed by three tribulations. Next appears a group of seven angels, who trumpet a series of disasters that recall the plagues suffered by the Egyptians in the Book of Exodus. Several scenes of conflict, idolatry, and persecution intervene before the appearance of another group of seven angels, who empty their vials onto the earth in order to inflict a third set of miseries.
The city of Babylon (an embodiment of evil) is destroyed, and the devil is vanquished—but only temporarily—initiating a millennium of peace on earth under the reign of the returned Christ At the end of that finite era the devil is allowed to escape for one final battle before he is banished to the fiery pit The Day of Judgment dawns. The elect—those who have obeyed God s will—ascend to heaven, or the New Jerusalem; the sinners are cast into hell's infinite torment, administered by the devil and his demons. Time ceases. Eternity begins.
Church tradition has it that the author of Revelation is Saint John the Divine, the disciple "whom Jesus loved" and author of the Gospel of John. He is said to have written the Book of Revelation under divine inspiration—"in the spirit"—on the Aegean island of Patmos (in present-day Greece). Nowhere in Revelation does the author claim to be Saint John the Divine; he calls himself simply John. One of the conventions of apocalyptic literature is the use of a venerable pseudonym in order to lend the greatest possible credence to the message. The Book of Daniel, for example, was written in the second century b.c., but its author took the identity of the prophet Daniel, who had lived four centuries earlier. John, however, made no such attempt to inflate his own credentials.
 One modern scholar (J. Massyngberde Ford, The Anchor Bible: Revelation) proposes John the Baptist and his followers as the book's authors, and she asserts that parts of Revelation—those with particularly strong links to Jewish texts—predate the Gospels and the establishment of the Christian church. Others have placed the most likely date of the book's creation around a.d. 95 and thus too late to have been written during the lifetime of someone from Christ's own circle—although church tradition does have the disciple John living to the unusually old age of ninety-nine. What consensus there is seems to favor the idea that Revelation was written by an itinerant Christian prophet, of Jewish and Palestinian origins, who believed that the second coming of Christ was imminent Like the rest of the New Testament, it was written in Greek, but according to Norman Cohn (in Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come), the author's use of that language seems "strange and ungrammatical," as though he were more accustomed to thinking in Hebrew or Aramaic.
In the early days of the church, when the contents of the New Testament were still in flux, there was vehement opposition to including the Book of Revelation. As early as 367 it appeared on the list of New Testament books established by the Greek theologian Athana-sius the Great, in Alexandria, Egypt, but its inclusion continued to be controversial in the West Not until the Council of Toledo in 633 was it officially accepted as a canonical book, to be read as part of the church service during the period from Easter to the Pentecost The council's declaration that anyone who objected to this decree was to be excommunicated indicates what fierce passions the book aroused. The ultimate acceptance of Revelation into the Catholic—and later the Protestant—canon was strongly influenced by the belief that its author was indeed Saint John the Divine.
Whoever the author and whatever the time frame, the Book of Revelation has provided an irresistible source of imagery to artists for nearly two thousand years. It has no doubt inspired so many visual interpretations not only because of the emotional impact of its story—a terrifying, exhilarating message of destruction, redemption, and the end of the world—but also because of the eye-catching explicitness of its prose. The author created a narrative that is startlingly physical, evoking the senses of sight, hearing, taste, and touch. Colors abound. The four horsemen are mounted on white, red, black, and pale greet! steeds; the whore of Babylon "was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls" (15:7).


William Blake (1757-1827)
The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne


Sounds are loud and frightening. John hears "a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder" (14:2). The noise of the monstrous locusts' wings "was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle" (9:9). And the mighty angel of 10:3 "cried with a loud voice, as when a lion roareth and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices." Artists invented ways to make such sounds visible, as in one of the Apocalypse of Angers tapestries, in which seven bestial heads bellowing flames represent the seven thunders. Flavors and sensations are also precisely described. When John takes the little book from the angel, he is told: "Take it, and eat it up, and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey" (10:9). And when the whore of Babylon is destroyed, ten horns "shall eat her flesh, and burn her with fire" (17:16).

Saint John Takes the Book from the Seventh Angel

Hans Memling (1435-1494)
St John  the Evangelist on Patmos
Memling Museum, Saint Jeans Hospital, Bruges

The text grapples with the metaphysical fate of the world, but does so in a singularly physical way. Even celestial beings and realms are portrayed as unquestionably corporeal, with their materials clearly identified. The seven plague angels are "clothed in pure and white linen, and having their breasts girded with golden girdles" (15:6). The walls of the New Jerusalem "were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, a chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald" (21:19).
 Equally specific are the numbers, large and small, that are cited throughout the book. The number of the individuals sealed with the mark of God is 144.00c. Seven thousand men are slain by an earthquake that destroys one-tenth of Babylon. The great red dragon has "seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads" (12:3), whereas the beast from the sea has "seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns" (13:1).
Certain numbers recur with purposeful frequency. Groups of seven are the most dominant: seven churches, seven golden candlesticks, seven stars, seven Spirits of God, seven lamps, seven seals, the lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, seven angels with trumpets, the seven thunders, seven heads of the beasts, seven plague angels, and seven kings. Throughout both testaments, seven is a sacred number, symbolizing wholeness and perfection. Four, and its multiple twenty-four, also punctuates the text, which is divided into four series of seven (seven letters, seals, trumpets, and plagues). Twenty-four elders, usually interpreted as representing the twelve Old Testament prophets plus the twelve New Testament apostles, encircle the celestial throne, offering eternal praise to God. Also worshiping around the throne are the four beasts. Although these beasts are holy, the number four more often stands for the earthly, the mortal, and the imperfect.
 The most famous number in all of Revelation, and the one that continues to haunt the modern imagination, is 666. "Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six" (13:18). One interpretation has it that 666 stands for the Roman emperor Nero, who has come to be a symbol of Antichrist Nero's name in Greek, the language of the New Testament, is Neron Kaisar, which can be represented numerically in Hebrew as 666. Later interpreters who have sought to find Antichrist in their own times have used numerology to link 666 to everyone from the thirteenth-century Pope Innocent iv and King George ш of England to Henry Kissinger and Ronald Wilson Reagan.
 Time in Revelation functions on two levels. First, there are the finite units of time cited within the book, with certain actions allotted clearly defined (and clearly metaphorical) spans. Just one hour is required for the utter destruction of Babylon. The locusts with scorpion tails torment men for five months. The woman clothed with the sun flees to the wilderness, where she is fed for "a thousand two hundred and threescore days [three and a half years]" (12:6). The devil is bound by Saint Michael and thrown into the bottomless pit for exactly one thousand years. This finite span of one millennium, when peace and prosperity are enjoyed on earth, has long dominated interpretations of Revelation, with "the millennium" coming to stand for the larger idea of the end of all time.

The other chronology at work in Revelation is the one, not always consistent, that suggests when the events described will take place. Tenses vary throughout the book, with some events described in the past tense and others in the present or future. An urgent sense of imminence is frequently conveyed, as when Christ proclaims: "Behold, I come quickly: blessed is he that keepeth the sayings of the prophecy of this book" (22:7) and "the time is at hand" (22:10). But to the church at Sardis he has John write: "I will come on thee as a thiet and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee" (3:3).
 Whatever chronological ambiguities the text may contain, there is little doubt the author believed that the events he envisioned would take place very soon, a conviction that has been shared by believers over the course of the past two millennia. Anticipation of the imminent end of the world and the concurrent reward of the faithful has been particularly intense during periods of war, plague, natural disaster, and other cataclysms. These intensified periods of belief are reflected in the frequency with which artists have depicted apocalyptic events, based primarily on the Book of Revelation but also taking elements from Christ's comments to his disciples on the Mount of Olives (recounted in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and sometimes known as the Little Apocalypse).
Perhaps because his vision was such a singular one—unlike scenes from the life of Christ, which might have come from any or all of the Gospels and hence were not linked to a specific author—John himself frequently appears in depictions of Revelation imagery. Usually shown as an observer rather than a participant, he often stands to one side while the action proceeds. In Hans Memling's altarpiece, John sits in the foreground as his vision unfolds behind him, with a multitude of events taking place simultaneously. Note, for example, the four horseman charging diagonally across the middle ground, while the war in heaven is fought at upper right. One of the greatest expressions of apocalyptic imagery came from manuscript illuminators working in Spain after the Islamic invasion. A monk named Beatus, writing in 776 at the monastery of Liebana in Asturias, compiled a lengthy commentary on the Book of Revelation by alternating verses from the book itself with interpretations by church fathers and others. Numerous illuminated copies of Beatus's Commentary on the Apocalypse (of which twenty-six still survive, in varying states of completeness) were made from the ninth to the thirteenth century.


The illustrations are startling in their use of unnatural colors, inventive forms influenced by Islamic art, and flattened space, often with multicolored striped backgrounds. Yet no matter how stylized, the images remain faithful to the text they illustrate. See, for example, nightmarish locusts from the Morgan Library's manuscript, which dutifully incorporates the breastplates, gold crowns, and scorpion tails described in the ninth chapter of Revelation.

 Another surge of artistic interpretation of Revelation came during the grim days of the late Middle Ages, when the Black Death and civil wars scythed through the populations of Europe. The twelfth-century Italian monk Joachim of Fiore wrote an influential treatise on the Apocalypse, which announced that the Age of the Holy Spirit would begin around 1260, after three and a half years of rule by Antichrist. Paintings, sculpture on Gothic cathedrals, and manuscript illuminations give abundant testimony to medieval society's preoccupation with the world to come.
Despite the underlying violence of the subject, there is an almost sweet delicacy to some of the apocalypse manuscripts illuminated in England and France during that period—see, for example, the horseman from the Cambrai Apocalypse, with its pale colors and fine lines so unlike the bold ornamentation of the horsemen in Beatus's Commentary.
 In the twentieth century, haunted by wars and genocide of incomprehensible barbarity as well as by threats of nuclear meltdown, ecological catastrophe, and global plague, it is unnervinglv easy to envision contemporary counterparts to the events in Revelation. Modern artists from Wassilv Kandinsky to Howard Finster and Robert Roberg have done just that finding new and compelling ways to interpret these ancient yet all-too-relevant scenes.


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