Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia

Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia

Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia

Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia

Synopsis

The book of Revelation has been a source of continual fascination for nearly two thousand years. Concepts such as The Lamb of God, the Four Horsemen, the Seventh Seal, the Beasts and Antichrist, the Whore of Babylon, Armageddon, the Millennium, the Last Judgement, the New Jerusalem, and the ubiquitous angels of the Apocalypse have captured the popular imagination. One can hardly open a newspaper or click on a news site without reading about impending financial or climate-change Armageddon, while the concept of the Four Horsemen pervades popular music, gaming, and satire. Yet few people know much about either the basic meaning or original context of these concepts or the multiplicity of different ways in which they have been interpreted by visual artists in particular. The visual history of this most widely illustrated of all the biblical books deserves greater attention. This book fills these gaps in a striking and original way by means of ten concise thematic chapters which explain the origins of these concepts from the book of Revelation in an accessible way. These explanations are augmented and developed via a carefully selected sample of the ways in which the concepts have been treated by artists through the centuries. The 120 visual examples are drawn from a wide range of time periods and media including the ninth-century Trier Apocalypse, thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman Apocalypse Manuscripts such as the Lambeth and Trinity Apocalypses, the fourteenth-century Angers Apocalypse Tapestry, fifteenth-century Apocalypse altarpieces by Van Eyck and Memling, Durer and Cranach's sixteenth-century Apocalypse woodcuts, and more recently a range of works by William Blake, J.M.W. Turner, Max Beckmann, as well as film posters and film stills, cartoons, and children's book illustrations. The final chapter demonstrates the continuing resonance of all the themes in contemporary religious, political, and popular thinking, while throughout the book a contrast will be drawn between those readers of Revelation who have seen it in terms ofearthly revolutions in the here and now, and those who have adopted a more spiritual, other-worldly approach.

Excerpt

A round 400 CE, when he was translating the Bible into Latin, St Jerome, the Christian saint and scholar, exclaimed, ‘The Apocalypse of St John has as many mysteries as words. All praise is insufficient. In each of St John’s words there are many meanings.’ Even more emphatic in his praise of this mysterious last book of the Bible was the late John Tavener, the composer, as recently as 1999: ‘When St John saw, he saw everything. Out of his burning, thunderous love, he saw the vision of the end, the wholesale destruction of humanity, the New Jerusalem beyond all comprehension, imagination and thought.’ This certainly gives a sense of the book’s tone.

But it is not a tone which has appealed to all its readers. ‘Beware of the Apocalypse, which, when studied, almost always finds a man mad or makes him so’ thundered the editor of Rainbow: A Magazine of Christian Literature in 1866. More succinct and more cheeky was Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, in who in a 1997 episode of the series deadpanned, ‘If the Apocalypse comes, beep me,’ showing that the apocalyptic ideas and themes encapsulated in Revelation remain pervasive in the pop culture of our day. This is also the case with journalism. As recently as August 2014, Matt Ridley wrote in The Times2 that ‘From Gaza to Liberia, from Donetsk to Sinjar, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse—conquest, war, famine and death—are thundering across the planet, leaving havoc in their wake.’ In both the Buffy quote and in Ridley’s article ‘the apocalypse’ has only negative connotations.

D. H. Lawrence, in what turned out to be his last substantial work, was more measured, but also more damning of the work itself, when he wrote that ‘we can understand that the Fathers of the Church in the East wanted the Apocalypse left out of the New Testament. But like Judas among the disciples, it was inevitable that it should be included. The Apocalypse is the . . .

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