Magazine article The Spectator

'Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia', by Natasha O'Hear and Anthony O'Hear - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia', by Natasha O'Hear and Anthony O'Hear - Review

Article excerpt

Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia Natasha O'Hear and Anthony O'Hear

OUP, pp.368, £20, ISBN: 9780199689019

At the heart of the eschatological ideology of the Islamic State is the belief that when the world ends (and the world ending is a good thing in their estimation) the final conflagration will take place in northern Syria, in an unremarkable town called Dabiq (which Isis presently occupy). It is here that the Armies of Rome will combine forces against the Armies of Islam, and the Armies of Rome will be defeated. Other significant details include the appearance of a mahdi (a messianic leader) and a dajjal (an anti-messiah) whom Jesus (Islam's second greatest prophet) will return to earth to destroy, thereby (perhaps somewhat bizarrely from a western perspective) leading the forces of Islam to victory. Apocalypses, it seems, are a fashion perennial. They never go out of style.

How timely, then, that in their deliciously prescient and yet extraordinarily civilised book Picturing the Apocalypse, father and daughter team Anthony and Natasha O'Hear should really get to grips with all things apocalyptic by dint of applying a beautifully polished magnifying glass to the world's ur-apocalyptic text, Revelation (the final, most slavishly read -- and most violently contested -- of the 66 books of the Bible). Love it or loathe it, Revelation has, throughout the past 2,000 years, ineluctably shaped the way we like to understand the end of things (because every satisfying narrative -- be it our relationships, our careers, our families, our fictions, and especially our faiths -- always requires a beginning, a middle and an end to attain a sense of true coherence, even -- dare we hope? -- transcendence).

The O'Hears argue cogently that because of its visionary (and therefore inherently visual) origins, this savage and challenging last book of the New Testament is often best understood (or decoded) through the work of the world's artists.

Sound simple? It isn't. Because just as soon as the reader starts to try to grasp the meaning of Revelation (the book, the vision) it suddenly transmogrifies into a shifting sand of rapidly overturned and overturning certainties. But do not fret; the O'Hears will quietly guide you through the fascinating maze of unknowns, symbols, mysteries and conundrums that surround this ancient book, firing off with the startling fact that Revelation isn't the work of St John the Evangelist. …

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