Apocalyptic Art
in the Medieval, Renaissance and Modern Eras
a presentation by
Lina Portolese, Tina Borsum, Alex Nam
for
THST 398: "The Book of Revelation and Apocalyptic Literature"
Loyola Marymount University - Spring Semester 1999
(webpages reformated by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.)

Introduction

For centuries, the topic of eschatology (the study of the very end of time) has raised many questions for people all over the world.  Individuals, whether common lay people or highly educated theologians, have struggled to make sense of the obscure texts in the Bible, especially the Book of Revelation, that are relevant to this issue.  People have tried to understand the biblical ambiguities in many ways, varying from objective study to subjective meditation, from literal interpretations to artistic depictions.  Depending on the political, social and economic situations of the time, a historical crisis (such as religious persecution) provides motivation for individuals to delve into the mysteries of apocalyptic.  In examining apocalyptic art from three distinct periods, the Medieval, Renaissance and Modern eras, we need also to note the historical events of the times.

Medieval Apocalyptic Art

Medieval apocalyptic art showed the first trend of art deviating from the text.  The Antichrist was a key figure in Medieval apocalypticism.  Although never mentioned by that name in the Book of Revelation, and only a few times in the rest of the New Testament (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3;  2 John 1:7), the Antichrist was a central figure in Medieval beliefs about the end of the world.  There seemed to be an obsession with identifying the Antichrist as a human being.  Richard Emmerson's book, Antichrist in the Middle Ages, describes the major role that belief in the Antichrist played in Medieval apocalyptic thought, influencing the art and literature of the time (p. 11).

Regarding the Book of Revelation, a major focus in the Medieval era was on Chapter 13.  This chapter describes two beasts.  The first beast has seven heads and ten horns.  The second beast has two horns and speaks like a dragon.  In Medieval interpretations, the first beast was seen as the Antichrist and the second beast was seen as the devil (Emmerson, 40).  This appears to be the opposite of current thought, which sees the first beast as the devil and the second one as the Antichrist.  It is the second beast that acts on behalf of the first, not the other way around.  In addition, the title Antichrist is never mentioned in the Book of Revelation.

Whether correct or not, this belief in the Antichrist influenced Medieval artistic depictions of the Book of Revelation.  For example, the Antichrist figures in the Beatus Apocalypse, a Spanish manuscript of the time, clearly identify the Antichrist as a human figure (Emmerson, 108).  These are in contrast to previous works depicting more literal pictures of the beasts described in Revelation 13.  The Medieval depictions start to show the trend of interpreting the Book of Revelation artistically in less literal ways.  This trend will continue into the Renaissance era and beyond.

Apocalyptic Art of the Renaissance

Although the Renaissance (14th to 16th centuries) is classified as a revival (lit. "rebirth") of artistic and intellectual thinking, there was also a great deal of religious unrest in Rome and within the church.  The corruption within the church was intensifying as the abuses of papal power were creating a great "preoccupation with the apocalypse" and an extremely pessimistic mood toward religious and national politics (Patridge, 12).  Since the church and politics went hand-in-hand, prophecies during the Renaissance usually corresponded to a political situation; common people were outraged and looked for someone to blame.  As in the Medieval Period, the people of the Renaissance, in their obsession with the apocalypse, anticipated and expected the Antichrist, the great power that would bring the cosmic eschatology to their doors.  They believed that the end time prophecy was unavoidable and inevitable, and that the powers able to carry out the divine plan were in their presence, a belief that can be seen in the religious artwork of the time.  However, some of these works deviated from the Book of Revelation even further than the earlier Medieval works.  In addition, they borrowed descriptions from non-biblical literature based on the judgment day. Examples of such works include the artistic renditions by Albrecht Dürer, Michaelangelo, and Luca Signorelli.

Even though Albrecht Dürer was a German, his life's second greatest love was Italy, specifically Venice.  His first love was for the church and its teachings, a subject that found its way into a great majority of his artwork.  The religious unrest of Dürer's time, especially with the Reformation, which led to the separation of the Protestants from the Roman Catholic Church, inspired artists like Dürer to depict the prophecies of the apocalypse.  In 1498, Dürer compiled 14 original woodcuts that corresponded to the text from the Book of Revelation, such as the four horsemen in Rev 6.

Michelangelo, famous for his artistic decoration of the walls of the Sistine Chapel, painted over four hundred figures in his fresco, The Last Judgment.  Michelangelo incorporated images not only from the Book of Revelation but also from other apocalyptic sources, such as Dante's Inferno.  Traditionally, Last Judgment scenes in churches and chapels face opposite the altar, so as to encourage and remind people, as they exit the "sacred space... of humankind's final fate" (Patridge, 11).  Michelangelo, on the other hand, was the first ever to place the scene above the altar, setting the fresco as the focal point for all individuals who walked through the doors of the Sistine Chapel.

Luca Signorelli's work in the San Brizio Chapel in Orvieto depicts numerous scenes from Revelation, although, like Michelangelo, he includes Dante's Inferno as well.  Politics of the time motivated Signorelli's interpretation of the Antichrist, one of the central figures throughout the frescos, as an "embodiment of the heretical enemies of the church, rather than as any particular individual.  [The interpretation] demands that the leadership of the day put aside their differences and so confront the apocalyptic force that threatens to engulf all" (Riess, 25).  Signorelli's works in the chapel show the close relationship between prophecy and individual lives, and the concentration on the unavoidable cosmic eschatology.

The historical events of the times, coupled with the inclusion of other works, such as Dante's Inferno, were often transformed into various artistic renditions, which developed the trend of less literal biblical interpretations.  During Medieval times, interpretations were motivated by the desire to humanize the symbolic figures, such as the Antichrist. During the Renaissance, the use of non-biblical texts influenced and encouraged less literal interpretations.

Modern Apocalyptic Art

From the Renaissance age came a Romantic Movement of artists.  While Impressionism was the artwork of choice, Expressionism was soon the artist's medium.  Instead of painting the still-life figures of everyday life, Expressionism broke the boundaries of technical style to the expression of emotions and deep personal revelations.  One of the first artists to have a significant impact on the Expressionist movement in religious art was William Blake.

William Blake, a poet, writer, engraver, and painter in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, contributed a score of religious artwork with themes of the apocalypse.  Blake lived from 1757 to 1827, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, and the American Revolution.  Better known as a poet than a painter, Blake contributed a large amount of illustrations for the work of other poets, which included Milton, Young, and Dante.  One of Blake's more famous work of art is his illustration of the book of Job.  Blake also wrote in a style of an apocalyptic writer.  Some scholars consider William Blake a mystic, however many disagree.  This debate is due to Blake's wide acceptance to superstitions, which was considered extreme in the age of reason.  Much of his artwork reflects his own religion based upon the joy of human life, which he believed glorified God.  For a preview of some of William Blake's artwork on the web, see http://www.nelepets.com/art/artists/b/Blake_William.htm.

With the evolution of expressionism, art is seen as a deeply personal expression and revelation, as it was with William Blake.  However, modern society shows little interest in apocalyptic art.  The apocalyptic art of today reflects modern and postmodern thoughts, where it rejects boundaries between high and low forms of art, rejects rigid genre distinctions, emphasizing pastiche, parody, irony, and playfulness.  This can be seen in Robert Roberg's painting of "The Whore on the Beast".  Postmodern art favors reflexivity and self-consciousness, fragmentation and discontinuity (especially in narrative structures), ambiguity, simultaneity, and an emphasis on the destructured, decentered, dehumanized subjects.  The style of fragmentation and ambiguity is apparent in Howard Finnster's "Vision of a Great Gulf on Planet Hell".

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