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My earliest memory of apocalyptic references is from the movies The Omen and The Seventh Sign *rolls eyes* and I remember a heated discussion at the locker rooms/ near the water cooler about the grave signals that apocalypse is imminent. Unlike Buffy, however, I could not shrug it off with an irreverent: "If the apocalypse comes, beep me." Ten years later, I saw the book "Picturing the Apocalypse" on Net Galley, and as I am interested in art, especially books which dissect art, I requested an ARC.

This book basically looks at the common motifs and themes in the Book of Revelations of the Bible, and goes on to highlight and interpret some of the most famous artworks pertaining to this part of the New Testament.

It reads more like a textbook than a detailed non-fictional commentary, so although it was difficult to start with, the pace soon catches up. Notable artists/ artworks mentioned in the book include: Michelangelo (painting above); Albrecht Durer; Lucas Cranach; William Blake; Frans Masereel; Botticelli; John Martin; Max Beckmann; Gordon Cheung; and manuscripts like Trier Apocalypse (France); Angers Apocalypse (France); Flemish Apocalypse; Beatus Apocalypse (Spain); Lambeth, Trinity and Gulbenkian (Anglo-Norman) Apocalypse; Van Eycks' Ghent Altarpiece; and Memling's St. John Apocalypse Triptych (Bruges).

So who wrote the Book of Revelations? Not John the Apostle, and not John the Evangelist, for sure. But the visionary who wrote the book some time in 90 CE was also named John. (Interestingly, there are also dire warnings in the Book about people adding any further omens/ prophetic visions to the Book.) This John of Patmos has been portrayed as a man in  a divine trance, in a famous painting by Bosch, and he tells us of the visions of the Four Horsemen, the Whore of Babylon, Satan and Armageddon beseiging the earth, and the Last Judgement upon which a New Jerusalem is the reward for the virtuous.

John's visions were, no doubt, a product of their time -- that of the corruption within the Holy Roman Empire during Nero's reign, the 'waywardness' of the seven churches in Asia and even the erruption of Vesuvius. Most other interpretations of John's visions in the Book of Revelations have been similarly affected by events such as the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Protestant movement against Papal corruption, French Revolution, American Independence, the Crusades, Lenin and the Russian Revolution, Hitler's Third Reich, World Wars, the Vietnam War, Apaartheid, the nuclear arms race and modern proliferant promiscuity. Even world problems like poverty, energy crisis, unemployment and inflation have been linked to apocalyptic themes in art. Picturing the Apocalypse takes up some of these prominent artworks and explains their background, the history of the artist and their intentional/ unintentional symbolic significance. Below, I have provided references to some of the pieces that were personally most eye-catching for me.

Scene 1: Images in which John is called upon to receive his visions by an angel, as depicted by Durer's Apocalypse image series (Nuremberg) and Trinity Apocalypse's The Twenty Four Elders in the Heavenly Throne Room (at Trinity College).


Scene 2: The Lamb seen as a holy sacrificial symbol or martyr, who by bleeding, takes on the sins of the world and tries to heal the human-divinity rift, as depicted in "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" in the Ghent Altarpiece (1432) by the Van Eycks.

Scene 3: The Four Horsemen of War, Famine, Pestilence and Death. Over time, these horsemen have been depicted as riding together or seperately, different coloured or identical in appearance, and so forth. In Mortimer's painting, Death on a Pale Horse (1784), all is ghoulish, skeletal and Godless. In Blake's painting with the same title (1800), the horseman is angel-ordained and is followed by Hades (portal to hell for dead souls). In some political satires, rulers themselves have been depicted as horsemen (e.g. Prime Minister William Pitt in "Presages of the Millennium" by James Gillray).

Scene 4: The Seven Seals. This is a sequence of omens which predict the approaching Antichrist, including earthquakes, eclipses, meteor rains, shipwrecks, dead fish, sea poisoning, army of locusts, etc. For instance, see the stillness in motion of The Great Earthquake at the Trinity Apocalypse (1260, Trinity College); El Greco's mystical, hallucinatary style in Opening of the Fifth Seal (Spain, 1608); and Francis Danby's haunting, overwhelming 3D effect in the Opening of the Sixth Seal (1828, London).

Scene 5: Armageddon to Last Judgment. With the rise of the Antichrist and his minions (including the Sea Beast, the Earth Beast, the Dragon, the Whore of Babylon and so forth), war breaks out. (Interestingly, "Armageddon" did not mean war, but a Hebrew word for the place where the battle is supposed to take place.) Upon Armageddon, Satan is defeated and chained, the good and the bad are judged. Perhaps the most haunting representation would be the triptych painted by John Martin in the 1850s (Plains of Heaven, The Last Judgment, Great Day of His Wrath) in which the idyll is shattered.


Scene 6: The good are promised the new land of "New Jerusalem". Is New Jerusalem an earthly city or a celestial one? Will humans be contributing towards its building or not? Will the virtuous ones be the only dwellers, or will they be permitted to procreate so that children may reside there as well? The place itself has been depicted so variedly in the Book, that artists have found it difficult to portray. Botticelli depicts it as a second Eden in The Mystical Nativity, while William Blake paints it as a watery city in The River of Life (1805)

Scene 7: Modern Day depictions of apocalyptic events in art. See Max Beckmann's "Resurrection" (1918, London), a morbid potrayal of distorted bodies in pain influenced by Beckmann's experiences during the World War; Frans Masereel's Aeroplanes over Manking (1944) (a sample of German expressionist work below); and Otto Dix's Dance of Death (1917, London), envisaging the end of all life.

Over time, the depiction of the apocalypse and related events has become something of a norm, in modern art, modern music, modern cinema and modern news reporting. For every political debacle, every human or natural disaster, the almost automatic connotation is that of the apocalypse. Some of the more well-known depictions include:

  • Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds", described as an "apocalyptic poem";

  • Narnia: The Last Battle (as illustrated by Pauline Baynes);

  • Coldplay's "I don't want to follow Death and All His Friends" (2008).

  • Movies like Apocalypse Now (based on Conrad's Heart of Darkness); 28 Days Later; 28 Weeks Later; Melancholia; Children of Men; The Day After Tomorrow and Bergman's The Seventh Seal.

  • Guardian's 10 Greatest Post-Apocalyptic Video Games of All Time.

  • Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus.

  • Johnny Cash's When the Man Comes Around and Bob Dylan's Hard Rain

There were some funny moments as well, for instance, where D.H. Lawrence is cited as having snubbed the whole thing as mythology in "Apocalypse", or as a kind of godless picturization:



"Of all the stale buns, the New Jerusalem is one of the stalest... only invented for the aunties of the world."



Another was the point where the book critiques the "Left Behind" drama series, a series given to fictional exploration of end times from an evangelical Dispentionalist perspective, i.e. the fall of the Antichrist in the modern world. The series is described as "Nostradamus written by Jeffrey Archer". The authors state:



"Because the raptured ascend naked (which we do not see), we are given the unintentionally humorous sight of distraught people screaming at piles of abandoned clothes left on aircraft seats, in cars and in beds."



I liked this book overall, even though the illustrations themselves were black-and-white, in a truly classroom textbook style. The artworks mentioned were often repetitive, and had there been a side-by-side comparison of the pieces from the 1400s to the 2000s, it might have made more sense. The book turned out to be more about works based on apocalyptic themes rather than differences in depictions -- but a worthwhile exercise anyway. I am, happily, much wiser after a reading.

Rating: 7/10

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