Apocalyptic Art
in the Medieval, Renaissance and Modern Eras
by Lina Portolese, Tina Borsum, Alex Nam

Comparative Analyses

The intense and ambiguous imagery used in ancient apocalyptic texts have inspired and motivated artists worldwide to exhibit heir interpretations of various apocalyptic scenes and images. Just as interpretations differ from scholar to scholar, the variety of artistic depictions illustrate the difficulty of interpreting such ambiguous texts. Although interpretations through time become less literal, examining art from three distinct eras shows that one link connects them together - the desire to interpret an unsolvable mystery.

The Four Horsemen (Rev 6)

The depiction by Beatus of Liebana (d.798) entitled "The Fist Four Seals: The Four Horsemen" is a literal interpretation showing the four horsemen separately. However, the colors of the horses do not correspond with the description in Revelation. The painting includes the scales of the third horseman and Hades that follows close behind the fourth horseman.

In contrast to the two other works, Albrecht Durer in "The Four Horsemen" depicted the four horsemen together in one woodcut. Hades is shown as a man-eating beast and is under the hooves of the fourth horse. An angel is shown at the top center of the woodcut, which is not mentioned in the text.

Roger Brown's 'The Final Arbiter " (1984) provides a secular interpretation of Death, the fourth horseman. Hades is not shown, nor is the horseman holding a sword as described in the text. This image exemplifies the era's diminished concern for a literal interpretation.

The Antichrist (Rev 13)

Throughout the Book of Revelation there is no mention of the Antichrist; however, the many interpretations of the false prophet or the beasts were shown or depicted as the Antichrist. For example, the medieval representation entitled "Antichrist Seated Upon Leviathan" from the Liber Floridus understood the seven headed beast with ten horns to be the Antichrist. As stated before, during this era the common belief was that the Antichrist would hold a human form. Therefore, in this painting, the human Antichrist wears a crown with ten horns but lacks the seven heads and beastly figure described in Revelation. He is seated upon the second beast, who in medieval interpretation is the devil. The image shows the Antichrist receiving his power from the second beast.

Signorelli's interpretation of the two beasts in Revelation 13 is rather scrambled. This picture is part of Signorelli's "Last Judgment: Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist". The image shows the false prophet, the second beast, empowered by the first beast as described in Rev.; however, instead of the first beast having seven heads and ten horns, he holds a human figure but with two horns. Although the two horns are said to be on the second beast, Signorelli has placed them on the first beast instead. This fresco follows, quite literally, the rest of the details in the description found in Rev.13.

William Blayney's "Antichrist on the Globe" (1961) uses Revelation as motivation for his work, though it is not a literal or traditional interpretation. The beast does indeed have ten horns and is placed above the globe, showing his influence over the inhabitants of the earth. The figurehead, without body, represents the possibility of the existence of many antichrists.

The Woman on the Beast (Rev 17)

The painting from the "Lambeth Apocalypse" entitled "The Woman on the Beast: Angel Shows Saint John Vision of the Great Harlot Seated on a Seven Headed Monster" (1260) exemplifies, once again, the medieval trend of literal interpretation. The woman is clothed in scarlet, holding a golden cup in her hand. She is seated on a seven headed beast with ten horns. The only other figures in the painting are the angel and John. The work does, however, deviate from the text in two ways: the beast is not scarlet but tan, and the title the woman wears is on her belt rather than on her forehead.

In "The Whore of Babylon" (1530), the woman holds an enormous golden cup of abomination and is crowded by the inhabitants of the earth. The angel and John are shown off in the distance. She wears a large crown rather than a title on her forehead. She is also adorned in gold and pearls as mentioned in 17:4.

Although Robert Rothberg's interpretation of the "Whore on the Beast" ("The Whore of Babylon Riding on a Beast with Seven Heads" 1991) is a very modern presentation, on the other hand, certain imagery is taken directly from the text: the scarlet beast has seven heads, ten horns and the ten crowns of the kings, and the woman holds a golden cup. The artist uses the liberty of modern art by adding a male character with a serpent's tongue coming through the man's mouth. This image is in reference to the false prophet or perhaps the antichrist.

The Beast Chained (Rev 20:1-3)

The Beatus of Liebana (d. 798) image "The Devil Chained in the Abyss" (shows the angel with the chain and key as described in Revelation. The artist has chosen to depict the devil as a serpent and the angel is prepared to cast down the serpent; however, there is already a human like figure chained and bound in the abyss, an additional figure not mentioned in the text.

The devil chained in "The Key of the Bottomless Pit" from the Luther Bible in 1530 is not shown as a serpent but rather more as a dragon like beast. It is very submissive to the actions of the angel as he pushes the devil into a fiery abyss. The setting is very realistic and earthly rather than an otherworldly depiction - the beast or devil is cast down into the earth, the bottomless pit.

William Blake in "He Cast Him into the Bottomless Pit and Shut Him Up" (c. 1800) depicts a great struggle between the wingless and naked angel and the half serpent, half human figure, a struggle not shown in the other two images. Although a struggle exists, the serpent is terrified. The image is shown in an otherworldly setting and an opening to the abyss is not shown.

The Last Judgment (Rev 20:11-14)

Traditionally when viewing Last Judgment scenes, the elect are ascending on the left side of the viewer. The damned descend to hell on the right side. Although to the viewer this situation seems backwards (usually the chosen are seen as being on the right), the pictures should be viewed from the point of view of the one seated on the throne. In this perspective, God calls the chosen up with his right hand, on his right side. This tradition is upheld in all three works

In the Medieval work by Giotto "The Last Judgment" (1306), the one seated on the throne is in the middle of the picture. The elect are to the right of him and the damned are to the left. He is encircled by a host of angles, four which are trumpeting. It has always been the tradition of having two or four trumpeting angles. The devil, on the bottom right, is a part beast and part human figure, as was the trend during this era. The damned are being cast down by a rush of fire and flames. This closely depicts the description in Revelation 20:15. Lastly, there is brightness on the bottom left side contrasted with darkness on the bottom right.

Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" incorporates Revelation with the non-biblical text, Dante's Inferno. The resurrecting figures on the left are coming and pulling themselves from the earth, whereas the figures on the right are being pushed and pulled down into the torments of hell. Traditionally, there is two or four, at the most, trumpeting angels calling for resurrection. Michelangelo uses eight trumpeting angels, which was never before seen. An angel points a small book of life down to the left, yet a book for the damned, weighty enough for two angels to uphold, is opened to the right. There are over 400 figures in this fresco, most of them naked, the center figure being Jesus, with Mary on his side.

William Blake's "Last Judgment"  is similar to Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel painting. Jesus is enthroned in the middle while the left side of the portrait has men and women ascending towards the book of life and the right side of the portrait has men and women descending from the book of the damned. Blake also evokes the difference between the two side by the color tone. Blake also shows the Satan in his pit of hell with seven heads, perhaps referring to the first beast in Revelation chapter 13. However, with all of its descriptive imagery, Blake did not have an orthodox view of the Last Judgment. Instead, he believed that this was when one in a state of mind recognizes an error and decisively casts it out (Vaughn, 20).

The People Cast Down (Rev 20:15)

The Medieval depiction by Dirc van Delf ,"Hellmouth" (c. 1405), saw the damned as being cast into the mouth of hell; in this picture, it is the mouth of a beast. Flames are rising from the mouth, consistent with the passage. However, this image shows three beasts being cast down along with the damned. In the text, the beast is cast down with the dragon and the false prophet earlier than the rest of the damned.

The colorful painting of Hans Membling is part of his "Last Judgment" (c. 1467). It shows those individuals not found in the Book of Life being cast into the lake or pit of fire. Hellish creatures push and throw the naked figure down, tormenting them along the way. The torment and the angel blowing the trumpet in the upper left corner are not mentioned in the text. The angel is on the left and the damned are on the right, a situation common in this type of depiction.

The Howard Finster's "Vision of a Great Gulf on Planet Hell", depicts dragons and leviathans breathing fire and torturing the descending people into the pit of fire. His interpretation is a expressive translation rather than a literal translation of Revelation. The artist litters the painting with phrases describing the conditions of hell.

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