Almost every age has produced striking images of Revelation across a range of media. From the sixth century mosaics of the Lamb of God in the San Vitale Church in Ravenna to the brightly colored beasts and dragons of the ninth–thirteenth century European illuminated Apocalypse manuscripts, images of Revelation were prevalent in the church art and manuscripts of the Middle Ages. The early modern era was filled with apocalyptic woodcuts (such as Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut Apocalypse series of 1498) and the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with apocalyptic paintings. Even today, our visual culture is permeated with imagery derived from Revelation.
This wealth of visualizations is testament both to humanity’s fascination with the end times and to the richness and multivalence of the imagery used in Revelation to evoke the first century visions of John of Patmos. This is the apocalypse par excellence, as well as the fullest Christian exposition of the eschaton and of heaven itself. Many of the images in this rich history function as illustrations to textual versions of Revelation (most people were illiterate until well into the sixteenth century). However, others offer new insights into the text and help us to grasp how Revelation was understood at the time.
Visualizations of Revelation can be divided into Apocalypse cycles (in which the whole narrative of the text is visualized across a series of thirty–eighty images) and stand-alone images (in which sections of Revelation have been incorporated into other religious or political narratives). Throughout the visual history of Revelation, certain sections of the text, such as the heavenly throne room and the Lamb of God (
The visual history of the figure of the Whore of Babylon is a good example of this. Medieval visualizations of the figure, such as that found in the monumental Angers Apocalypse Tapestry of ca. 1373–1380, tended to present the Whore of Babylon as a beautiful yet vain young aristocratic woman. In one of the Angers images, the Whore of Babylon gazes at herself in a mirror, reflecting both Revelation’s contention that she was a richly attired woman with royal pretensions (
A selection of images such as these reveal some of the different ways in which John’s visions have been interpreted. But they also help us, as contemporary interpreters of Revelation, towards a more rounded understanding of this most visual of texts.
- Carey, Frances, ed. The Apocalypse And The Shape of Things To Come. University of Toronto Press, 1999.
- O’Hear, Natasha, and Anthony O’Hear. Picturing The Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
- Kovacs, Judith and Christopher Rowland. Revelation: The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.