Apocalypse, Iconography of
APOCALYPSE, ICONOGRAPHY OF
The Apocalypse of St. John the Apostle, now commonly known as the Book of revelation, has been a rich source of subjects for art, especially in the early Christian and medieval periods. The abundant symbolism has yielded, through commentary and interpretation, such major themes as the Christ in Majesty (Majestas Domini ) and the Adoration of the Lamb, in addition to a large number of other figural subjects. Verse by verse, the Apocalypse is one of the most thoroughly illustrated books of the Bible.
Early Christian. The visions of the Apocalypse appeared on the triumphal arches of the basilicas of Rome to exalt the triumph of Christ and His Church after the persecutions (432–440, S. Maria Maggiore). The theophany of the adoration of the Lamb by the 24 Elders was represented (5th-century mosaic, St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls), as well as that of the Lamb enthroned between the seven lamps "which are the seven Spirits of God" (Rv 4.5). These important themes were repeated in Carolingian illumination (the Elders in the Evangeliary of St. Médard of Soissons and the Codex aureus of 870) and in later periods of Christian art. The Venerable Bede tells in the Lives of the Abbots (ch. 6) that Benedict Biscop brought back from Rome images from the Apocalypse of St. John for the decoration of the abbey church of St. Peter at Wearmouth. These images were copies made after Roman frescoes.
Early Medieval. In North Africa the visions of St. John found early commentators, such as Tertullian and St. Cyprian. The enthusiasm for the Apocalypse, rendered more pathetic by the persecutions of the Christians under the Vandal occupation, reached Visigothic Spain. There it became sanctioned by the 17th canon of the Council of Toledo (633). The 12 books of commentaries on the Apocalypse written by Beatus of Liébana (d. 798) were recopied until the 15th century. Twenty-four manuscripts of the illustrated text still bear witness to their fame (MSS 429 and 644; Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City). Three capitals in the church of St. Mary at Fleury were inspired by Spanish models in an illuminated Beatus commentary. They show the Son of Man in the midst of the seven candlesticks, the Four Horsemen, and the Dragon put in chains and thrust down to the abyss.
Romanesque. The influences of the Beatus manuscripts is detectible on Romanesque sculpture of southern France. In the tympanum of the porch of St. Peter at Moissac, the 24 Elders raise their crowned heads toward the vision of a colossal Christ. He is crowned (Rv 12.10) and enthroned amidst a complex pattern of the Four Animals and two six-winged Seraphs. The tympanum of Moissac represents essentially the diffusion of the Majestas Domini. The theopathy of the Majestas, a theme first created for the decoration of the apses, was transferred in the 11th century to the front of the churches, as a sign of holiness and salvation. The façade of the church, being turned toward the setting sun, designated the place where the assize of the Last Judgement was anticipated.
As a revival of the Carolingian style within a Romanesque environment, an outstanding series of frescoes was painted at the end of the 11th century in the porch under the western tower of the church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, accompanied by the Apostles and adored by angels, who bend in the attitude of the proskynesis. Twelve scenes encompass the Majestas, illustrating: the swarm of locusts appearing like battle horses (Rv 9.7); the release of the four angels imprisoned by the Euphrates (9:14–15); the Woman attacked by the Dragon; the war fought by Michael and the Angels against the Dragon (12); and the new Jerusalem sent down by God from heaven, clothed like a bride adorned to meet her husband (21.2).
In the Hortus Deliciarum of Herrade de Landsberg (c. 1180) we find the unique representation of God wiping away the tears from the eyes of His own people and emphasis laid on the deeds of antichrist in nine illustrations, an emphasis derived from St. Augustine's de Civitate Dei. The influence of the Byzantine iconography of the Last Judgement and of Greek art is obvious in the Hortus Deliciarum. The dragon with seven heads is named eptazephalus after the Greek. The throne prepared for the judgement—the Etimasia of Byzantine art—was interpreted as the altar above "the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God" (6.9).
Gothic. In the monumental art of the High Gothic period, the representations of the Apocalypse disappeared from the tympanum of the portals. The radiant vision of the 24 Elders occupies the rose window in the south transept of Chartres cathedral. Apocalyptic cycles were carved in the voussoirs of the archivolts of the Last Judgment portals of the cathedrals of Paris and Amiens, where the Four Horsemen and the torments in hell are prominent.
The inexhaustible attraction that the Apocalypse exerted as a source of grandiose imagery is exemplified in a series of English or Franco-English manuscripts of the 13th and the early 14th century. They continue the early Christian tradition of manuscript illustration that was transmitted by Italy to Gaul. The earliest and perhaps most beautiful English Gothic Apocalypse is that of Trinity College, illustrated around 1230 at St. Albans. This and other manuscripts of its type were decorated splendidly for royal and aristocratic patrons, most of them English. A few are only picture books, with legends in Latin and French accompanying the illuminations; they include a sequence of illustrations picturing the miracles and final overthrow of the antichrist. The importance granted to the antichrist was later to be echoed in the frescoes of the Last Judgment with apocalyptic overtones, painted after 1500 by Signorelli in the cathedral of Orvieto.
The monumentality inherent in the Apocalyptic visions was fully realized in the tapestries woven in Paris on the looms of Nicolas Bataille from 1375 to 1381 for Duke Louis of Anjou. The cartoons provided by Jean Bondol of Bruges copied the illuminations of various manuscripts of the Channel school. The original tapestry for the chateau of Angers was made up of seven pieces, each divided into 14 subjects arranged in seven pairs, with backgrounds alternately blue and red and introduced by an enraptured reader, sitting under a canopy. The seven readers, who are as tall as the height of the tapestry, may symbolize the seven Churches of Asia (1.11). The gigantic cycle of Angers included 98 scenes and was 800 square meters when intact.
Only faded remains of Cimabue's frescoes—the opening of the seals, the angels holding the winds, and the fall of Babylon—remain in the upper church at Assisi. But the Apocalyptic frescoes incorporated by Giusto de' Menabuoi in the encyclopedic program of paintings in the baptistery at Padua (1375–78) are particularly important because they are related to the Pentecost in the choir and also to the "great multitude which no man could number" (7.9) displayed in the cupola, illustrating the theme of All Saints. In the oldest Italian tradition, Rv 7.9 was read on Pentecost, but the evocation of the Great Multitude was shifted to All Saint's Day. The immense east window in the choir of York Minster was filled by John Thornton of Coventry (1405–08) with 1,700 square feet of painted glass that developed a program second in scope only to that of Padua, since it includes 27 panels illustrating the Old Testament and 81 depicting 90 scenes of the Apocalypse.
In the polyptych by Jan van eyck at St. Bavon, Ghent (1432), the vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem descended in the form of a reredos upon the altar itself. Open, it shows in the upper section the world of transcendence: a Deesis, in which the Virgin and St. John are enthroned in glory as Christ's first elect, and musicians, who are symbols of the 44,000, singing and playing on their harps (Rv 14). Below, a flowering meadow introduces the world of immanence in the Adoration of the Lamb. Around the Lamb, who sheds His blood on the altar amidst angels proffering the trophies of the death and Resurrection of Christ, are assembled eight groups: the martyrs and the virgins nearest to the altar; in the foreground, the patriarchs and Prophets, the Apostles and confessors, to the left and right of the fountain of life; on the wings, the just judges, the knights, the hermits and, finally, the pilgrims. These eight groups represent the Beatitudes, in keeping with the Gospel read on All Saint's Day. The core of the iconography, which is the "choir of the blessed in the sacrifice of the Lamb," as the painting is entitled in a document of 1458, corresponds to the reading of Rv 9.2–12 on November 1. The adoration of the Lamb by all the saints received its visual expression as a result of the liturgy adopted in 835 for All Saint's Day.
Renaissance and Modern. From the 15th century on, the chief medium of the illustration of the Apocalypse was the woodcut. Albrecht dÜrer published his Apocalypse himself, both in Latin and German, in 1948. This great artist condensed the Apocalypse into 14 woodcuts. What was fundamentally new in Dürer's Apocalypse was the individual and polemical approach, the material aspect of the pamphlet that he conveyed through his work. This was soon to inspire the Protestant iconography of the Apocalypse originated in Wittenberg by Luther and Cranach in 1522. Through the Wittenberg New Testament the imagery of Dürer was carried to Lutheran Bibles illustrated by Burgkmair, Schaufelein, Hans holbein the Younger (1523), Erhard Altdorfer (1533–34), and Martin Schaffner (1534). On the Catholic side, his influence was felt in Bibles edited by Martin l'Empereur (Antwerp 1530) and Sebastian Gryphius (Lyons 1541). The woodcuts of Dürer, reinterpreted in the formal idiom of the school of Fontainebleau, gave birth to the magnificent series of Apocalyptic windows in the chapel of the chateau of Vincennes (1558).
Paradoxically enough, Dürer's Apocalypse, or a set of illustrations inspired by him, was used as a model book in the first apocalyptic cycle painted in Byzantine art at the Dionysiou monastery on Mt. Athos in 1547. In Byzantium the Apocalypse was not accepted as a canonical book before the 12th century. The contribution of Byzantine art to the iconography of the Apocalypse is late and remained derivative. The Elizabeth Day McCormick Apocalypse in Chicago illustrates 69 subjects of an early 17th-century translation of the Apocalypse into vernacular Greek.
The tragic events of the mid-20th century surrounding World War II have inspired moving interpretations of the Apocalypse in the graphic arts by E. Georg (1943), G. de Pogedaïeff (1947–50), A. Collot (1952), G. de Chirico (1952), and H. de Waroquier (1955). The medieval cycle of Angers was emulated by Jean Lurçat in the great tapestry that decorates the apse of Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grâce at assy (1947–48), showing the vision of the Dragon pursuing the "Woman that wore the sun for her mantel" and bore a Son (Rv 12).
Bibliography: For an essential treatment see f. van der meer, Maiestas Domini: Theophanies de l'Apocalypse dans l'art chrétien (Paris 1928), extensive bibliog. h. l. ramsay, "Manuscripts of the Commentary of Beaatus of Liébana on the Apocalypse," Revue des bibliothèques 12 (1902) 74–103. c. schelenberg, Dürers Apokalypse (Munich 1923). h. c. hoskier, Concerning the Text of the Apocalypse, 2 v. (London 1929). m. r. james, ed., The Dublin Apocalypse (Cambridge, Mass. 1932). i. yoshikawa, L'Apocalypse de Saint-Savin (Paris 1939). h. r. willoughby, and e. c. colwell, The Elizabeth Day McCormick Apocalypse, 2 v. (Chicago 1940). e. a. van moe, L'Apocalypse de Saint-Sever (Paris 1943). j. croquison, "Une Vision eschatologique carolingienne," Cahiers archeologiques 4 (1949) 105–129. r. planchenault, "L'Apocalypse d'Angers: Éléments pour un nouvel esssai de restitution," Bulletin monumental 111 (193) 209–262. p. cormans, Van Eyck: L'Adoration de l'Agneau (new ed. Anvers 1951). j. lurcat, L'Apocalypse d'Angers (Angers 1955). l. rÉau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien 2.2:663–726. h. aurenhammer, Lexikon der christlichen Ikonographie (Vienna 1959).
"Apocalypse, Iconography of." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/apocalypse-iconography
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