Four Horsemen ride into sunrise

The Apocalypse and the Shape of Things to Come
January 7, 2000

In a school art class I was once set the task of illustrating any scene from the Book of Revelation. I chose a verse from the letter to the church at Laodicea: "thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot" (Revelation iii:15), and painted a picture of a plumber wrestling with tangled pipes in a bathroom. The art teacher thought it was blasphemous and refused to put it on display for fear that visiting parents might be shocked.

Ironically, although I did not know it at the time, my picture was not all that far off the mark. The verse really did have a reference to plumbing. Laodicea drew its water supply from hot springs at some distance from the city, with the result that it always arrived unpleasantly tepid - not unlike some Christians in a community that at the time seems to have been notorious for its self-satisfaction. The imagery of tepid water struck home because it was rooted in familiar facts.

The same is true even of some of the more startling imagery in which Revelation abounds. The famous seven-headed beast with ten horns coming up out of the sea has an obvious precursor in Daniel, where it is a symbol of the succession of empires and rulers leading up to the persecution, and eventual liberation, of the Jews under Antiochus Epiphanes in the 2nd century BC. As elaborated in Revelation, it is usually interpreted as being for the encouragement of Christians under persecution by a variety of Roman emperors, with the seven monstrous heads most probably referring to the seven hills of Rome. So although the imagery is complex, many layered and at times bizarre, most of it has traceable roots that could have been identified by those to whom the book was first addressed. To read its message required a grasp both of contemporary events and of the genre of apocalyptic literature to which earlier traumatic events had given rise.

Much of the imagery is highly visual, which is probably why the book has been so popular with illustrators. However its very concreteness hides a problem. Just as a confused plumber cannot adequately express the spiritual state of the Laodiceans, so an actual picture of a seven-headed monster cannot convey the interpretation of history that gives the image its verbal power. In fact, it is inordinately difficult to translate complex verbal symbolism into visual form without lapsing into absurdity. Even such minor matters as allocating ten horns among seven heads serve to underline the difficulties.

Other examples abound. Albrecht Durer set the fashion for representing the angel in Revelation x:1, "arrayed with a cloud ... and his feet as pillars of fire", as a disembodied head hovering over legs made of straight stone columns with flames coming out of the top. The result is a faintly ludicrous image, repeated by many of Durer's successors, and conveying no hint of the underlying symbolism of Israel's exodus wanderings under the guidance and protection of the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. In similar fashion, a picture of Christ with a two-edged sword coming out of his mouth adds very little to the underlying concept of the Word of God as sharp and divisive.

This splendid volume provides ample material for such reflections. Six general essays contain a historical overview of the multiple ways in which Revelation has been interpreted and illustrated and a seventh sets it in a millennial context.

Some 240 beautifully reproduced pictures, many of them from the British Museum collections, are accompanied by notes that form the hard core of the volume's scholarship. Many of them are well worth viewing through a magnifying glass, if only to prove what a fine job the printer has done.

The Greek word "Apocalypse" is preferred to the Latin "Revelation" in the book's title because, although they both refer essentially to the disclosure of God's purpose, the Greek word has gathered overtones of death and destruction that more fully convey the impact the book has actually had. Despite the word's many difficulties and the grotesque attempts of many of its artistic interpreters to express the inexpressible,there remains an enduring quality about its symbolism, which constantly resurfaces when the extremes of human foreboding and suffering need to be articulated.

Medieval representations tended to focus on the Last Judgement and the glories of Heaven, and it is these aspects of the book that have had a huge impact on mainstream Christian liturgy and art. The great east window of York Minster contains no fewer than 78 panels depicting scenes from Revelation paralleled with a series from Genesis, a conjunction that is certainly there in the books themselves, and that suggests quite a sophisticated level of interpretation. The message was one of hope, not despair, of recreation rather than doom.

The focus was to change dramatically as the 15th century drew to a close. Durer's series of 15 woodcuts, all of which are reproduced here, were literalistic representations of some of the most lurid scenes, starting with St John being tortured in a vat of boiling oil, and may well have been inspired by the approach of the half-millennium. It set the standard for what was to follow, and one of the fascinations of this volume lies in tracing the development of these original designs by later artists and the increasingly polemical use to which apocalyptic imagery was put, as the Reformation took hold. In Luther's Bible, the Apocalypse was the only book to be illustrated, partly because he saw it as clearly allegorical and partly because his uncertainty about the canonical status of the text relieved him of any anxieties about idolatry. However, one effect of this tradition of illustration was that the visual strength of the contrasting images of good and evil tended to give a dogmatic clarity to contemporary controversies, at odds with the obscure character of the Apocalypse itself.It was not long before the beast from the abyss was wearing crowns and mitres and a papal tiara or, from an opposite perspective, seven Lutheran heads. In a climate of hatred and fear, vicious religious satire was a powerful weapon, particularly if it could claim biblical authority.

Apocalyptic imaginings have been fed by Revelation, even up to our own day, in times of conflict, danger and uncertainty. The English civil war and the French revolution produced their crop of quasi-religious cartoons with a strong political edge.

Throughout most of the 18th century, however, a preoccupation with the apocalyptic was usually ascribed to insanity, except in Romantic poets and learned clergy. The time spent by Sir Isaac Newton on the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation is nowadays rightly dismissed as a shocking waste, but there was a logic underlying it that, however mistaken, still attracts believers looking for the same kind of mathematical certainty in biblical prophecy that Newton found in the movements of the heavens. No such recognition attended Richard Brothers, who described himself, rather charmingly, as "Prince of the Hebrews and Nephew of the Almighty", and who,though equally precise about apocalyptic dates, identified them too closely with the French revolution, and ended up in Bedlam. He was the subject of some memorable cartoons, as was Joanna Southcott, whose famous box still remains to be opened by the combined episcopate of the Church of England.

A new kind of apocalyptic imagery came to fruition in William Blake. There are still traces of the Durer tradition, even a seven-headed beast, but he manages to convey, as never before, the sense of ordinary humanity facing mysterious and transcendent power. His angel walking on pillars of fire, for instance, is a huge figure bestriding tiny human beings, and looks awesome rather than absurd.

A different kind of awe is evoked by the vast canvasses of John Martin, an early Victorian painter whose apocalyptic scenes of judgement, as for instance in The Fall of Babylon , combine meticulous architectural detail with powerful portrayals of natural cataclysms. Martin was interested in town planning.

His brother Jonathan shared his apocalyptic leanings, but had a particular hatred of bishops, which he expressed by setting fire to York Minster in 1828. Such feelings are not unknown even in the 20th century, and there was a curious echo of Jonathan Martin when some highly publicised enthusiasts confidently ascribed the 1984 fire in the Minster to God's displeasure with the episcopate.

The mood of pessimism and foreboding at the end of the 19th century, fed by such writers as Baudelaire, Zola, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, showed that the apocalyptic imagination was still alive, but it tended to find expression in new forms. Gustave Dore's illustrations of Dante's Inferno , had a strong influence, even extending, it is claimed, to Cecil B. DeMille and the tradition of cinematic sensationalism. However the 20th century was soon to generate its own more devastating images in the horrors of the first world war, the Holocaust and Hiroshima. It might seem that, outside religious circles, the modern apocalyptic mind has to a large extent abandoned the traditional imagery of Revelation, and in doing so relinquished the hope that was inherent in even its most dire prophecies.

But not quite. I was intrigued when writing this review to find an article in a Sunday newspaper on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, with an illustration almost straight from Durer.

Nor can millennial concern escape completely from a tradition that held, over-zealously it must be admitted and often for the wrong reasons, that there is some kind of providential ordering of history. Dates on a calendar are to a large extent arbitrary, and even so significant a date as 2000, now enjoying global usage, has achieved more notoriety for what it might do to our computers than for what it might do to our souls. But marking the passage of time is a reminder that there are ends as well as beginnings, springs of hope at the possibility of putting the past behind us, and meanings to be discerned by setting transient individual lives within a larger temporal frame. A new millennium must at the very least give pause for thought. To those wanting a rich resource of intelligent historical comment with well-

chosen illustrations to guide their own reflections, I can warmly recommend this fine account of a still-living tradition.

The Rt Revd and Rt Hon. Lord Habgood was formerly archbishop of York. The exhibition "The Apocalypse and the Shape of Things to Come" will be at the British Museum until April.

The Apocalypse and the Shape of Things to Come

Author - Frances Carey
Editor - Frances Carey
ISBN - 0 7141 2623 3 and 2620 9.
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £40.00 and £25.00
Pages - 352

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments