Picturing the Apocalypse

The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millenia

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Natasha O'Hear, Anthony O'Hear
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     2017.
     368 pages.
     $16.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780198779278.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Written in interdisciplinary collaboration by Natasha O’Hear and Anthony O’Hear, Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millenia is an ambitious book. It is a history of art, but also a history of religious movements and biblical interpretation as expressed in the arts. The book is itself a reception of the text of John’s Apocalypse, even as it chronicles other receptions of it. At its broadest, the book functions as a survey of ideas, and the way changing politics and intellectual trends found their ways into various reactions to and expressions of Revelation. In this sense, reading this work is like riding in a particular car on a particular train, looking out one particular window onto a landscape. There are other windows on other trains, but there is something important about attending faithfully to the view from one vantage point, and gaining a sense of a large expanse through a single aperture.

The book’s organization subdivides this view still further, with most of the chapters focusing on one particular theme or image from Revelation—a procession of icons, almost, but with each icon appearing in multiple permutations and instantiations. Following the order of their appearance in John’s Apocalypse, the chapters announce the arrival of figure after figure: the Angel of the Apocalypse, the Lamb, the Four Horsemen, the Seven Seals, the Woman Clothed with the Sun, the Satanic Trinity, the Whore of Babylon, a trinity composed of Armageddon, the Millennium, the Last Judgement, and the New Jerusalem. In every case, the authors consider the sweep of history through the specificity of each iconic figure, proceeding chronologically in a familiar pattern from the earliest representations (usually medieval) to the latest (very often postwar American or European meditation on hopelessness and destruction, on the one hand, and millenarian Christian fantasies on the other). Along the way, most of the chapters stop to consider the broader (non-artistic) history of the interpretation of Revelation, which changed substantially across time. And alongside that consideration of reception, the book rightly and necessarily considers larger social, religious, and political shifts: how the Whore of Babylon becomes a Venetian courtesan presented by an orientalized sultan in Dürer’s woodcuts, for example, or how the fifth trumpet’s release of locusts is evoked in a swarm of helicopters in the promotional art for the film Apocalypse Now.

This attention to how Revelation acts as a mirror and megaphone for the troubles of every age is a major theme and strength of the book, but also one of the ways in which it is limited. O’Hear and O’Hear do not catalog every instance of Revelation’s depiction in the arts, of course, but they discuss enough of them that the book almost reads as a history of the anxieties and preoccupations of the European and American imaginations, as expressed in art. This is overwhelmingly about “the arts” as understood and expressed in the European tradition, with rare excursions to non-“Western” contexts, and for the most part the book focuses on painting. This is a function of the particularity of the aperture—of the choice of which window to look through on which train. But the reader is left with a sense of grief over other landscapes unseen. It is not fair to criticize authors for a book they did not try to write, but as this extended consideration of art demonstrates, the choice of what to leave out of a scene matters as much as the details of what the artist puts in it, and this work, like all others, is limited by its frame.

The book is in conversation with biblical scholars and with historical theology, but always as a means of accessing the art. In this way Picturing the Apocalypse is a strong work of reception history, and its appeal to contemporary scholarly analysis usually take a back seat to artistic representations and interpretations. This is especially important and useful in a book about Revelation, which resists easy scholarly analysis and categorization as vehemently as it resists simple visual representation. The thrill of the book is encountering the ways myriad artists, from medieval book illuminators to Reformation woodcut makers to 20th and 21st-century filmmakers, have contended with the overwhelming weirdness of John’s Apocalypse. O’Hear and O’Hear spin this difficulty into a compelling narrative that surveys a landscape while also coming to rest on many of the beautiful, grotesque, terrifying, divine, and human vignettes found in the corpus of artistic receptions of Revelation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eric C. Smith is assistant professor of the history of Christianity and New Testament studies at the Iliff School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
December 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Natasha O'Hear specialises in artistic interpretations of the Book of Revelation. She completed a PhD on the subject at Oxford University in 2008 and this led to her first monograph with OUP in 2011 Contrasting Images of the Book of Revelation in Late Medieval and Early Modern Art: A Case Study in Visual Exegesis. She has also published several articles on the subject. Having formerly held a Lectureship in New Testament Theology at Worcester College, Oxford, she now teaches at Burlington Danes Academy in West London. Natasha has recently been appointed Honorary Lecturer in Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews

Anthony O'Hear is professor of philosophy at Buckingham University and director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. He has been a government advisor on education to five secretaries of state for education. He has been editor of the journal Philosophy since 1995, and is the author of many books and articles including The Great Books: From The Iliad and The Odyssey to Goethe's Faust: A Journey Through 2,500 Years of the West's Classic Literature (Icon Books, 2007), Plato's Children (Gordon Square, 2005), and Philosophy in the New Century (Continuum, 2001).

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