Visualizing the Apocalypse by Natasha O’Hear

How has Revelation been interpreted by visual artists?
Almost every age has produced striking images of Revelation across a range of media.  From the sixth century mosaics of the Lamb of God in the San Vitale Church in Ravenna to the brightly colored beasts and dragons of the ninth–thirteenth century European illuminated Apocalypse manuscripts, images of Revelation were prevalent in the church art and manuscripts of the Middle Ages. The early modern era was filled with apocalyptic woodcuts (such as Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut Apocalypse series of 1498) and the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with apocalyptic paintings. Even today, our visual culture is permeated with imagery derived from Revelation. 

This wealth of visualizations is testament both to humanity’s fascination with the end times and to the richness and multivalence of the imagery used in Revelation to evoke the first century visions of John of Patmos. This is the apocalypse par excellence, as well as the fullest Christian exposition of the eschaton and of heaven itself. Many of the images in this rich history function as illustrations to textual versions of Revelation (most people were illiterate until well into the sixteenth century). However, others offer new insights into the text and help us to grasp how Revelation was understood at the time. 

Visualizations of Revelation can be divided into Apocalypse cycles (in which the whole narrative of the text is visualized across a series of thirty–eighty images) and stand-alone images (in which sections of Revelation have been incorporated into other religious or political narratives). Throughout the visual history of Revelation, certain sections of the text, such as the heavenly throne room and the Lamb of God (Rev 4:1-5:14), the four horsemen (Rev 6:2-8), the beasts of Rev 12-13 and Rev 17, and the New Jerusalem of Rev 21:1-22:21, receive more attention than others. The varied contexts of the artists who have created visualizations of Revelation produce different interpretative emphases. Thus an image can function both as an interpretation of a biblical text or passage and as a mirror to the artist’s own theological and cultural context.

The visual history of the figure of the Whore of Babylon is a good example of this. Medieval visualizations of the figure, such as that found in the monumental Angers Apocalypse Tapestry of ca. 1373–1380, tended to present the Whore of Babylon as a beautiful yet vain young aristocratic woman. In one of the Angers images, the Whore of Babylon gazes at herself in a mirror, reflecting both Revelation’s contention that she was a richly attired woman with royal pretensions (Rev 17:4, Rev 18:7) and medieval fears about female vanity. Lucas Cranach the Elder’s 1522 image of the Whore of Babylon presents her astride the seven-headed beast of Rev 17:3 wearing the papal triple tiara, thus stretching the identification of the Whore of Babylon with Rome (which is present in the text) to reflect Luther’s contention that the papacy was an agent of Satan. Such a polemical image leaves no room for considering that the Whore of Babylon might be as much a victim of the beasts of Rev 12 and Rev 13 as a perpetrator of evil. While there are hints of her victimhood in earlier images, it is not until William Blake (The Whore of Babylon, ca. 1809) that this side of her is more fully explored. This line of interpretation reaches its zenith in Max Beckmann’s 1942 image of the half-naked Whore of Babylon being abused by three jeering kings.

A selection of images such as these reveal some of the different ways in which John’s visions have been interpreted. But they also help us, as contemporary interpreters of Revelation, towards a more rounded understanding of this most visual of texts. 
 

Natasha O’Hear , "Visualizing the Apocalypse", n.p. [cited 20 Sep 2020]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/visualising-the-apocalypse

Contributors

ohear-natasha

Natasha O’Hear
Honorary Lecturer in Theology, Imagination and the Arts , University of St Andrews

Natasha O’Hear is Honorary Lecturer in Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews. She is an expert on the visual history of Revelation and has published numerous articles and two books on the subject: Contrasting Images of the Book of Revelation (Oxford University Press, 2011) and Picturing The Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia (Oxford University Press, 2015). Picturing the Apocalypse won the ACE Mercers Book Prize in 2017.

the final event in the divine plan; the end of the world.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

The otherwise unattested author of the book of Revelation. Historically, he was identified with John the Apostle, but modern scholars believe he was a different person, perhaps a Christian banished to Patmos.

Textual documents, usually handwritten.

Of or relating to the Middle Ages, generally from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. and overlapping somewhat with late antiquity.

The historical period generally spanning from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. in Europe and characterized by decreases in populations and the degeneration of urban life.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

The office of the Roman Catholic pope or the historical progression of popes.

rhetoric intended to oppose a specific position

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Rev 4:1-5:14

4 After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I w ... View more

Rev 6:2-8

2 I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.
3 When he opened the second s ... View more

Rev 12-13

The Woman and the Dragon
1A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve star ... View more

Rev 17

The Great Whore and the Beast
1Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great whore ... View more

Rev 21:1-22:21

21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the ne ... View more

Rev 17:4

4The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurit ... View more

Rev 18:7

 As she glorified herself and lived luxuriously,
    so give her a like measure of torment and grief.
Since in her heart she says,
    ‘I rule as a queen;
I am ... View more

Rev 17:3

3So he carried me away in the spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads ... View more

Rev 12

The Woman and the Dragon
1A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve star ... View more

Rev 13

1And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names.2And the ... View more

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