Picturing the Apocalypse

by Natasha and Anthony O’Hear, Oxford University Press, 333pp, £12.99

As Natasha and Anthony O’Hear argue, many of the images and symbols contained within the Book of Revelation possess the “vividness and potency of dreams”. As such, they can be terribly enigmatic, so representing them artistically, moving beyond the confines of language, opens up alternative routes towards understanding.

This, at any rate, is what Christians have been trying to do for centuries – in medieval manuscripts, altarpieces, woodcuts and many other media. The O’Hears take us on a fascinating, sumptuously illustrated journey through this crowded history, from tapestries in 14th-century France to the illustrations of Blake, and from Van Eyck to Max Beckmann in the trenches of the First World War.

Nine well-known images from Revelation’s rich cast of characters and symbols are discussed, and you’ll quickly lose count of the valuable insights provided by the O’Hears. When we simply read the biblical text, for example, it is easy to forget that John’s vision is continually being brought to him by angelic messengers. When you portray the story in a painting, however, the angels are allowed to remain at centre stage. This not only hammers home an important point, it also offers a reminder of a “world neither controlled by us nor, more fundamentally, constituted by us”. Sometimes we need the angels.

One of the book’s themes is the mutability of the way Revelation is represented through the ages. Whenever I think of the four horsemen, for example, I have Dürer’s famous image in my mind’s eye: the ferocious riders side by side, trampling all-comers under foot. It turns out, however, that in earlier centuries the horsemen tended to be depicted separately and could sometimes appear “almost serene”.

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