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Visualizing the Apocalypse

The visions of Revelation are a frequent subject represented by artists.

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. 

  • ohear-natasha

    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.