Text copyright © April 29, 2013 Dr. Elizabeth A. Garner, All Rights Reserved
“Whenever a man feels the precariousness of his experience, he turns to a picture.” Frances Carey.
Depicting the story of the last book of the Christian New Testament, called Revelations, but usually referred to as the Apocalypse, and which is the only book of the New Testament completely written in verse, was nothing new in European art from at least 1050 A. D. onwards. The word “Apokalypsis” is Greek, meaning to unveil or reveal, hence the story being called Revelations. It obviously significantly affected people because it was represented in such a variety of media and contexts over such a long period of time, and that doesn’t happen unless the imagery is very effective. Art historians call the representation of the Book of Revelations in art an Apocalypse art cycle.
What happens in the Apocalypse story? St. John of Patmos is tortured in boiling oil, and failing to die from this torture is banished to the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. Here he experiences visions and revelations (Greek: apokalypsis meaning to reveal, uncover) which he commits to paper and these writings were included in the Christian Bible, when the books that make up the New Testament were canonized.
The continuity of Apocalypse imagery from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance is striking. The familiarity of the Apocalypse images was why it was so powerful, because the symbolism was so easily recognizable; with the Apocalypse, the symbolism was critical to deliver the message, like company logos and branding today. It was so important that the images used in an Apocalypse art cycle were recognizable, artists tended to copy previous visual traditions, so there was really not a lot of innovation on the artist’s part in these representations until Albrecht Dürer published his version.
This was how the Church restricted knowledge and controlled the peoples of Europe. Until the printing press became really commercially viable circa 1470, almost no artist deviated much from what had gone before in the symbols used. For example, Hell in art always had to be on the left and Paradise on the right, with Purgatory rarely represented. Virtues and Vices were always represented as women, because the Latin language is “gendered” into male or female nouns and all the names of the Vices and Virtues in Latin are female nouns. To represent God as eternal and timeless, omnipotent, and all knowing, artists represented God with a full frontal face and this is exactly how God is represented in the Apocalypse art cycle. It was basically an unwritten artistic “rule” to do so until the Renaissance. Because of this “understanding” of what this symbol language meant, Dürer’s self portrait painting of himself in 1500 with a full frontal face is considered outrageous for its time (Dürer most likely hid that portrait in his home).
The first reason Albrecht Dürer became famous for his 1498 Apocalypse publications was that the imagery was so radically different from what had come before.
Most people think the Book of Revelations, supposedly written by St. John the Evangelist of Patmos, who probably was a fictitious figure, is a pure Christian concept. Modern scholarship suggests that John the Apostle, John the Evangelist, and John of Patmos refer to three separate individuals. Certain lines of evidence suggest that John of Patmos wrote only Revelation, not the Gospel of John nor the Epistles of John. The author of Revelation identifies himself as “John” several times, but the author of the Gospel of John never identifies himself directly. While both works liken Jesus to a lamb, they consistently use different words for lamb when referring to him—the Gospel uses amnos, Revelation uses arnion. Lastly, the Gospel is written in nearly flawless Greek, but Revelation contains grammatical errors and stylistic abnormalities which indicate its author may not have been as familiar with the Greek language as the Gospel’s author.
Almost all biblical scholars acknowledge that most of the story is a rewrite taken from the Hebrew Bible, with 348 indirect reworded quotes from the Hebrew bible, especially from the Books of Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Psalms. So what are regularly considered clearly and only Christian symbols in the Apocalypse art cycle are often also Jewish symbols as well. The Church just never told anyone this. Why would they?
Studying political history enlightens us that the Apocalyptic art cycle imagery was a vehicle of political propaganda and satire, quickly exploited by those in power when they wanted to scare the peasantry and merchant class. The Apocalypse was often used during the Reformation (Dürer’s Apocalypse was published almost two decades before Martin Luther and had no connection to the Reformation). The Apocalypse art could always be used to invoke a threat of retribution against the populaces. If this was effective, then the imagery could then be used as a message of hope that all would be well when the political and economic changes in society were implemented.
Finally, most of the Apocalypse art cycles before Dürer usually had a lot of images. On average, they included anywhere from 56-164 images. Albrecht Dürer’s Apocalypse had only had 15 images and a title page. And this was exceptionally strange and Albrecth Dürer’s Apocalypse was like no other.
More to come.
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