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date: 28 March 2017

The Book of Revelation: The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ

Summary and Keywords

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, or the Apocalypse of John, has been extraordinarily influential in Christian life and theology. For example, because of the many hymns sung by the heavenly host, Revelation has, like Isaiah 6:3, been particularly influential on liturgy and also music, for instance, the setting of Revelation 5:12, “Worthy is the Lamb that was Slain,” in Handel’s Messiah. It is one of two biblical apocalyptic texts (the other being the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible). Apart from the opening words, a dominant theme of Revelation is prophecy, and its imagery emphasizing what John “saw” on Patmos suggests that the form of prophecy in the first century ce included a significant visionary element, akin to earlier biblical exemplars such as Ezekiel 1:40–48 and Zechariah 1–8. The interpretation and reception of Revelation are closely linked. Like other biblical prophetic books, it became a reservoir for understandings of the future, but alongside it there developed a role as a way of unmasking the imperfections in church and society. This article uses the evidence of its reception to understand the nature and meaning of the book, its theological antecedents, and its relationship to other early Christian writings. Its role as an eschatological guide as well as its importance for political theology, complementing what we find in Daniel, are considered. It has also inspired artists down the centuries, from the time of the first illuminated Apocalypses, and this rich visual tradition captures something of importance about the book itself and the visionary stimulus it has provided.

Keywords: book of Revelation, Apocalypse of John, history of interpretation, apocalyptic literature, visions

Revelation among the Apocalypses

Revelation shares with several other texts from the beginning of the Common Era a concern with the unveiling of divine mysteries, including those that relate to the future (see, e.g., 4 Ezra and the Ethiopic Apocalypse of Enoch [1 Enoch], Slavonic Enoch [2 Enoch], the Apocalypse of Abraham, and the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch). The discoveries known as the Dead Sea Scrolls have confirmed the vitality of this kind of interest in the coming of a messianic age, which is largely absent from the earliest rabbinic sources, such as the Mishnah, even if it does make its appearance in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds and other later Jewish texts. While there are distinctive features about the future hope set out in Revelation, not least its juxtaposition of a millennial messianic reign and a new heaven and earth when God would dwell with humanity, most of these texts share a common pattern of expectation in which a time of travail and upheaval will precede the coming of the messianic kingdom. The time of travail (Dan. 12:1; Mark 13:8; Rom. 8:28; 1 Cor. 7:29–31; 1 Enoch 93:4; 4 Ezra 6:17–28; Syriac Baruch 26–27), given the description of “messianic woes,” is periodized in Revelation by means of the sequences of seals, trumpets, and bowls, but such periodization has its analogs in other texts. So Revelation adds its testimony to those of other apocalyptic texts and to the convictions about the coming of the messianic age, which pervade the whole of the New Testament, albeit in much more fragmentary form.

Understanding “Apocalypse”

Revelation is closely related to various writings from ancient religion that are revelatory in quality. They correspond to this definition, which has been widely used:

“‘Apocalypse’ is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.”1

This definition is fine as far as it goes. One may question the application of the description “transcendent reality” to both the revelation of the supernatural world and eschatological salvation, however. While it is true that the revelation offered of salvation is at the time it is revealed in a vision or audition, a transcendent reality, that “transcendent reality” was believed to be realized on earth, not in heaven or some transcendent world.’

In popular usage, largely conditioned by the book of Revelation, there are two main ways of construing “apocalyptic.” By far the more common is a definition by content such as that found in the book of Revelation, the Apocalypse: cosmic and social upheavals, graphic depictions of sudden cataclysm, eschatological hope, and related mythic features. Less common, but arguably more consistent with what we find in the apocalypses, Jewish and Christian, is a definition by the revelatory genre, namely, that the key to understanding the texts is that it is a revelation, an “unveiling” vision, whether it be about heavenly realities or about the nature of human history, past, present or future. In the latter way of looking at the apocalypses, what is crucial is not the future hope but the revelatory nature of the mode of understanding and the authority that it conveys.

The word apocalypse is used only once in Revelation, in the opening words, summarizing a disclosure in visionary form of that which is and that which is to take place hereafter (cf. 1:19). Throughout the rest of the book, it is the words prophet and prophecy that dominate, describing the book (22:18–19) and by implication the recipient of the apocalypse (22:9).

The prominence of the visionary element is important, as it separates Revelation from texts with which it is widely believed to be contemporary, namely, 4 Ezra and the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch. While the latter both contain some visionary material, they are largely verbal exchanges or predictions. Revelation also contrasts with the dominant and arguably most influential apocalyptic text in ancient Judaism, the apocalypse ascribed to Enoch. Many fragments of this have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the complexity of its textual history has long been recognized. Compared with the Enochic literature, especially that which is known as 1 Enoch, Revelation has a coherence and focus that is lacking in the Jewish work, which appears to be an amalgam of traditions put together over a considerable period of time.

The interpretation and reception of Revelation are closely linked. Like other biblical prophetic books, it became a reservoir for understandings of the future, but alongside it there developed a role for the book as a way of unmasking the imperfections in church and society. Evidence from the history of its reception helps us understand the nature and meaning of the book, its theological antecedents, and its relationship to other early Christian writings.

Revelation and Its Centrality for Understanding the Origins of Christian Theology

The book of Revelation is crucial to our understanding of the character of early Christianity. Revelation may come from the Roman province of Asia Minor, but its theological themes are those we find in different words and phrases throughout the New Testament. Indeed, it may well be one of the earliest writings in the New Testament and bear witness to earliest Christianity’s apocalyptic character. Tradition dates the book during the reign of Domitian, but its internal evidence suggests that it may have originated at a moment of crisis in the Roman Empire on the death of Nero in 68 ce (cf. Rev. 17:10).2

There are two major themes in the book that are key to understanding Christian origins. As its opening word implies, it is an apocalypse, a revelation or unveiling of divine secrets, particularly about the consummation of all things, when the New Jerusalem is established on earth and God is all in all. The key to the outworking of divine purposes is the Lamb who was slain and who shares the throne of God and is the key to the meaning of history (Rev. 4–5).

No one captures the shocking juxtaposition found in the words of these two chapters better than William Blake in The Four and Twenty Elders Casting Their Crowns before the Divine Throne (Tate Gallery London, c. 1803–1805). It is a dramatic picture dominated by the bearded Almighty holding a scroll with seven seals in his right hand and radiating glory. His head is surrounded with a beautiful sea blue, topped by a rainbow; above and around his head are creatures with the heads of an eagle, a lion, an ox, and a man, merging one into another. The whole scene is full of eyes, reminiscent in color and appearance of a peacock in full plume. At the forefront of the picture are figures doing obeisance, laying their crowns before the Almighty, while right at the front of the picture are seven heads with tongues of fire. The whole picture brilliantly captures the “jasper and carnelian,” the emerald rainbow and the twenty-four elders clad in white garments, the seven torches of Pentecostal fire burning before the throne—all of which are mentioned in John’s first heavenly vision.

In Revelation 4 there is no mention of the scroll in the hand of the Almighty. That is in the next chapter. After seeing the glory of God, John sees the Almighty with a scroll and hears one of the twenty-four elders asking “who will open the scroll.” At this point John weeps because no one is found worthy to open the scroll. He is told not to weep, because “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then John notices something, which hitherto slipped his attention:

“And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain . . . He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne and . . . the twenty-four elders . . . sang a new song, saying, Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals.” (Rev. 5:6–9)

Just like John, who saw first a throne and the glory of the Almighty, a viewer of Blake’s picture too would be forgiven for not noticing what appears to be the points of a crown and under it, almost invisible in the glorious surroundings, what at first sight seems to be a comatose animal. In picture the creature is readily ignored as we gaze at the colorful image, which underlines the key element not only of Revelation 5 but of the New Testament Apocalypse as a whole. In Revelation the Lamb who has been slaughtered becomes the key to the interpretation of history. The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the King Messiah, turns out to be a weak, dead creature. The Lamb that was slain is key to the unmasking of the pretensions of political power, in which the military might and economic power of the few are shown up. The values of the world are turned upside down as the meaning of the messianic promise is interpreted by the Lamb that was slain. This is what “apocalypse” is all about: revelation; unveiling. The story of the Lamb bearing the marks of slaughter, Jesus, who suffered a violent death at the hands of a colonial power, is the lens through which history is viewed, as political power in the world is also unmasked (Rev. 13 and 17).

Revelation and the Visionary Tradition

The link between Revelation and the prophetic books of the Bible is seen in the indebtedness to Daniel and Ezekiel, in particular. The striking imagery of John’s vision sets it apart, however, from much of the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible, where the visionary imagery is exceptional (e.g. Amos 7:7; 8:1; Jer. 1:11, 13). That changed in the postexilic prophecy of Zechariah (e.g., 1:8, 18; 2:1; 3:1; 4:2; 5:1), whose imagery, along with the visions of Ezekiel (Ezek. 1 cf 8:2 and 10; 37; 40–48) and Daniel (especially Dan. 7:1–14 and 8:3–12), provide the antecedents for the visual images of Revelation.

We cannot know what led to John’s dramatic meeting with the heavenly Son of Man on the island of Patmos, even if conjectures may be made about the significance of the time (the Lord’s Day) and the place (possibly, though not certainly, in exile, as was the prophet Ezekiel). Given the widespread existence of the visionary and mystical in the Christian material of the first century or so, not to mention its profound importance for the growth of the movement, it would be an excessively suspicious person who would deny that authentic visions lie behind some or all of these brief literary records. It is possible that the visions that follow may have been prompted by imaginative exegesis in which the images were visualized by the seer.

Revelation is part of a visionary tradition. Ezekiel and Daniel have influenced the form and content of the book of Revelation. From the Christophany at its opening via the visions of heaven, the dirge over Babylon, the war against Gog and Magog (cf. Ezek. 39), and, finally, the vision of the new Jerusalem, Revelation bears the marks of the written forms and ancient prophecies influencing the more recent prophetic imagination of John of Patmos. Daniel’s beasts from the sea, for example, become in John’s vision a terrible epitome of all that is most oppressive and eerily akin to the way of perfection symbolized by the Lamb that was slain. This unique example in the early Christian literature of the apocalyptic genre is profoundly indebted to Jewish apocalyptic and mystical ideas. In Revelation, the first chapter of Ezekiel, which describes the chariot (merkabah) on which God is enthroned (Ezek. 1:22–26), has contributed to the visionary vocabulary of John in two crucial parts of his vision (namely 1:13 and 4) and in the references to the throne, divine, and demonic, which run like a leitmotiv throughout the book. This remarkable chapter has been the inspiration for mystics and seers in Judaism and Christianity down the centuries.3 What we have in Revelation is a glimpse of a distinctive use of the prophecy, parallel to but in significant respects an independent variant of other apocalyptic texts.

In addition to Ezekiel, Revelation stands near the start of a long tradition of interpretation of Daniel 7, in which both the apocalyptic beasts and the human figure are taken up in an emerging political apocalypticism. While the Revelation imagery picks up on the tradition of representing nations by beasts found in Daniel 7, only one beast is described as incorporating characteristics of the other beasts. As in Daniel 7, one beast arises from the sea, but two creatures are described in Revelation 13 (13:1 and 11). The second emerges from the land, reflecting the local, indigenous promoter of the imperial cult, while the first is the official representative from Rome. The beast is the incarnation of the powers of the Devil (13:2) and attracts universal admiration for its acts (13:3). The plausibility of the beast is seen, as it is like the Lamb and appears to deserve worship. Imperial power is rooted in its military might (13:4). The beast is given some of the characteristics of the Lamb (1:3 and 14). In addition to Daniel 7, the political vision is informed by the oracles against Tyre and Babylon, in Ezekiel 27 and Jeremiah 51.

Differing Patterns of Interpretation

The shifting fortunes of the Apocalypse can be traced in the history of interpretation. The main contours of apocalyptic interpretation were already set within the earliest period of Christianity. The book of Revelation points the way in three major respects, some of which are paralleled elsewhere in the New Testament. There is, first, that visionary appropriation of scripture in which the words offer the opportunity to “see again” what had appeared to prophets and seers in the past or to become a means of prompting new visions whereby there can be a discernment of higher spiritual realities. Second, Revelation, although it only occasionally prompts that quest for the meaning of the mysteries, (e.g., 17:9; cf. 1:20 and 4:3), has prompted scores of ingenious attempts to unlock its mysteries, most comprehensively in the interpretative tradition of Joseph Mede and Isaac Newton.4 Third, there has been the “actualizing” of Revelation in which particular visions are believed to be identified with or embodied in contemporary events. These range from the more mystical (and indirect) appropriations by visionaries such as Hildegard of Bingen to the militant “acting out” of the Münsterites.5

In addition, the visions of Revelation have been related to their ancient, first-century context. In this interpretative approach, questions are concerned with the meaning for the original author and readers and with the need to decipher the complex symbolism and its relationship to the particular circumstances in which Christians found themselves in Asia Minor in the late 1st century ce. The images have been regarded as an allegory of the struggles facing the individual soul in its quest for God, and the wider political ramifications of the text are subordinated to an individual religious piety. Finally, and related to that tradition of “actualization,” there has been an application of the text to an interpreter’s own circumstances, but rather than the text of Revelation being “decoded,” so that the apocalyptic imagery is translated into a less exotic narrative of persons and events, the imagery of Revelation is used as an interpretative lens through which to view history. In this way of using the text of the book of Revelation, encouraged by the interpretative method of the fourth-century Christian exegete Tyconius, the interpretative perspective has ceased to be solely about the eschaton and becomes instead a means of interpreting every age of human existence.6 To quote the words of the twentieth-century Christian activist William Stringfellow, “Babylon is an allegory of the condition of death, the focus of apocalyptic judgement whereas Jerusalem is about the emancipation of human life in society from the rule of death, an anticipation of the end of time.”7

Plotting Differing Interpretations

The differing interpretations of the Apocalypse may be expressed in diagrammatic form.8 On one hand, there is a chronological component (the vertical axis): Does the interpretation relate to the past, present or future? On the other hand, there is a hermeneutical component: the allegorical method “decodes” the text and renders it in another, more prosaic form compared with the colorful language of the apocalyptic imagery; the analogical method juxtaposes the imagery of the Apocalypse with the situation of the readers, thereby enabling them to look at their situation in a new way. Whereas the allegorical method tells one what the text really means and reduces its applicability to one time and place, the analogical method can be used over again at different times and places. The latter is closest to the method of Tyconius, and the former is similar to the kind of interpretation that we find in Joachim’s interpretation of the dragon, whose heads are identified with specific rulers.

The Book of Revelation: The Apocalypse of Jesus ChristClick to view larger

Figure 1. Plotting the varying interpretations of the Book of Revelation.

A Survey of the Interpretation of the Apocalypse

Early patristic appropriation of the Apocalypse took several forms. In the struggle with what might be loosely termed Gnosticism on the part of those writers who were later to be deemed pioneers of Christian orthodoxy, insistence on the materiality of the doctrine of the Resurrection and this-worldly eschatology played their part in the writings of both Justin (Dialogue with Trypho 80) and Irenaeus (Against Heresies v. 26.1 to v. 36.3). It is the future hope for which Revelation is best known. The millennium, at once puzzling and embarrassing to many generations of Christians, was central to the hope of the first Christians and continued to be part of the pattern of hope for this world, as is evident from traditional material in the writings of Papias of Hierapolis (who lived in the early part of the second century). Included in his now-lost work is a saying, attributed to Jesus, in which the fruitfulness of the earth would be dramatically increased in the new age (preserved in the writings of Irenaeus in Against the Heresies v. 33.3–4). The popularity of such apocalyptic ideas among movements like the Montanists led to a growing suspicion of the book, but suspicions about the Apocalypse emerged only at the beginning of the third century ce. Questions about the apostolic origins of the book, echoed by Martin Luther in his “Preface to the New Testament” centuries later, were part of that growing suspicion of its theology. According to Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History iii:28.3), Dionysius of Alexandria regarded the expectation of a reign of God on earth as evidence of authorship by the heretic Cerinthus, rather than the apostle John.9 In contrast, elsewhere in the relics of early Christianity the “gnostic” texts from Nag Hammadi focus less on the eschatological content of Revelation and more on its apocalyptic genre. The revelatory form is an important part of guaranteeing the worth of the content of what is contained in the text, attributed, as it often is, to an authoritative figure like a Christian apostle such as Peter or Paul.

Although in several key respects Origen had anticipated him, Tyconius’s reading of the book of Revelation (c. 400) had a profound influence on the mature Augustine and thence on later Christendom, stressing the contemporary rather than the eschatological import of the visions. Tyconius reads Revelation as having a contemporary application to the life of Christians living in the midst of ambiguity and, just as important, as part of a community that contained both those on their way to salvation and those on their way to perdition. As such, Revelation is a key hortatory resource informing contemporary practice, rather than an eschatological map to the climax of all things. The mature Augustine continued in that tradition. Indeed, Revelation offered him an interpretative key, which helped him to expound the complex struggle between the heavenly and earthly cities in the present age in which Christians had to live.

The Interpretative Tradition Initiated by Joachim of Fiore

The main outlines of the Augustinian interpretation held sway for centuries. The later Middle Ages saw the emergence of the influential reading by Joachim of Fiore, which was to use Revelation as a hermeneutical key to understanding both scripture and the whole of history. Joachim broke decisively from the Augustinian tradition in being willing to find significance in history.10

In Joachim’s interpretation of the Apocalypse, the sixth and seventh penultimate ages assume great importance as a time of anticipation and struggle. The period represents a space for conflict with the forces of Antichrist (a term that does not occur in Revelation and is found in the New Testament only in the First and Second Epistles of John, e.g., 1 John 2:18, 22; 2 John 7), which evokes an outburst of spiritual activity in the form of spiritual renewal. In this penultimate period, persecution and renewal, exile and prophetic witness, jostle one with another. The sense of anticipation prompted various patterns of moral renewal, and this should remind us that this was not about learned prognostications but instead was intimately linked with the renewal of the church as the witness to the coming kingdom.

Joachim’s figura of the dragon with seven heads indicates that, alongside the historically sequential explanation, there is also the recognition that this threat is both eschatological and historical: what will be the case at the end time is a constant part of human history. The seven heads are identified as different persecutors of the Christian church through history (Herod, Nero, Constantius, Mohammed, Mesemoth, Saladin, and one yet to come). The final Antichrist, indicated by the tail of the dragon, is Gog. Between the long necks of the dragon’s heads appear captions detailing the seven persecutions of the church; Saladin, the contemporary tyrant, is represented as a larger head. Joachim interprets history, relating the pressing crisis of his own time as a sign of the eschatological times. It is this decisive move that initiates that extraordinary outburst of self-aware eschatological enthusiasm, in which persons and events became the signs of hope or agents of Antichrist.

Revelation in the Early Modern Period

Even if Revelation did not dominate the interpretative horizons of the principal magisterial reformers, the sense of the propitious moment, of the time being “apocalyptic,” pervaded the sixteenth century and the climactic events that it witnessed. Luther initially outlined his reasons for relegating the book to a subordinate place within the canon of the New Testament in words that echo much earlier (and later) assessments in the Christian tradition. He believed that it was not “apostolic or prophetic” because “Christ is not taught or known in it” and “to teach Christ is the thing which an apostle above all else is bound to do.”11 He modified his view on Revelation in the later editions of his New Testament, from 1530 onward. From his summary of its meaning, he regards its images as indicative of the heretical threats to the church down the centuries, and, in Revelation 13 and 17, the comprehension of the unmasking of papal power in the beast and Babylon seated on the beast is an important resource in his intellectual battle with the Roman Catholic Church.

Extensive use of Revelation was made in the writings of Melchior Hoffman (d. c. 1534), who was a significant influence on radical Anabaptism at Muenster.12 He saw Revelation as key to the understanding of history, the meaning of the secrets of which had been revealed to him. The Melchiorite interpretation of Revelation, relatively unusual in the practice of a millenarian politics, like the revolutionary actions of Thomas Muentzer a decade earlier, did not remain at the level of utopian idealism but resulted in violent attempts to establish an eschatological theocracy. Despite the sense of an expectation of imminent fulfilment, what one finds in post-Münster Anabaptism is the sense of being in the penultimate period rather than in the eschatological commonwealth on earth.

The place of Revelation in radical religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries needs little explanation. Perhaps more surprising is the rich tradition of interpretation in which careful exposition of the book was carried out in a more measured and less heated atmosphere. For example, Joseph Mede (1586–1638) viewed the book as a series of “synchronisms” or recapitulations. Isaac Newton’s commentaries on Revelation, written a century and a half later, were explicitly indebted to Mede’s work, manifesting a concern to discern evidence of divine providence in history.13 From another academic setting we find Revelation inspiring the utopian politics of Mede’s contemporary Johann Valentin Andreae (1586–1654), the German exegete whose Christianopolis (1619) evinces a speculative architecture that is indebted to (Rev. 21–22) and part of a series of actualized utopian projects in the early modern period. There was also the emergence of a rise of historical awareness, which led to a perspective on the book and which focused more on past meaning than present application, an interpretative approach used by Roman Catholic critics as they struggled to reject the links between the Babylon of Revelation 17 and the Roman Church. Similarly, the early modern interpreter Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) argued that the book’s meaning was almost entirely related to the circumstances of John’s own day.

The book of Revelation had an important role in inspiring, in many different ways, the radical politics of the period of the Civil War in England in the seventeenth century.14 One of the most powerful examples of a social critique, inspired by the Apocalypse and related parts of the Bible, emerge in the writings of Gerrard Winstanley. Between 1649 and 1651 Winstanley wrote tracts while he was actively involved in creating a community in Surrey, England, known as “the Diggers,” because they claimed the right to live on and work the common land in the aftermath of the Civil War in Britain, anticipating a time when there would be community of goods. Winstanley had a strong consciousness of his own prophetic vocation. He believed that the prophetic spirit was again active in the momentous days in which he lived, after the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a commonwealth.15 Winstanley used the imagery of Daniel and the Apocalypse to interpret the oppressive behavior of the wielders of political and economic power of his day.16

The Apocalypse as a “Map” of the End of the World

As we have seen, there are contrasting patterns of interpretation of Revelation, each with ancient pedigrees. On the one hand, there is a figurative application, which uses the apocalyptic language as a way of challenging and exhorting those who read, which might apply in any situation. On the other hand, there is a form of interpretation that uses Revelation, along with other biblical prophecies, to piece together a detailed account of the events leading to Christ’s Second Coming and the outworking of God’s eschatological purposes. The interpretation of the Apocalypse as a repository of prophecies concerning the future has existed from the beginning of the exegesis of this book, reaching a high point in the influential interpretation of Joseph Mede. It was given a particular impetus in the eschatological movements set in train by the exegesis of Joachim of Fiore in the later Middles Ages and was then fanned into flame in the early modern period in the intense eschatological expectation that is to be found in Europe and was given intellectual basis by the researches of Joseph Mede. The role of Revelation in helping to create a map of the end of the world has been a feature of many modern appropriations of biblical prophecy. While Revelation is by no means the only text that has been used in this way—Daniel and 1 Thessalonians are of equal importance—it has its own important role to play in the eschatological scheme. What distinguishes modern eschatological speculation is that it sees the Apocalypse as one piece of a larger biblical jigsaw, the whole of which provides resources for constructing the exact sequence of events in the last days.17 John Nelson Darby (1800–1882), Anglican clergyman and founder of the Plymouth Brethren, interpreted the book as unfulfilled prophecy, a reading followed by the widely influential Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909, which reflects the peculiar fears of the late twentieth century. This kind of interpretation offers encouragement for the elect, who will enjoy a miraculous rescue through the “Rapture,” Christ’s return to take the elect to himself (an idea based on 1 Thess. 4:17 and Luke 17:34).18 The Apocalypse is seen to contain prophesies of contemporary institutions and events. For example, the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear installation in the USSR in 1986 was identified by some with Revelation 8:11.

The Apocalypse and Art

Unsurprisingly, the Apocalypse, as the most suggestively visual text in the Bible, has appealed to many artists. Illustrated Apocalypse manuscripts from the 9th to the 14th centuries indicate connected cycles of illustrations.19 One of the earliest such surviving manuscripts, the Trier Apocalypse, produced near Tours, France, around the year 800, has a cycle of seventy-four full-page illustrations.20 A different kind of artistic representation is found in the Liber Figurarum of Joachim of Fiore, already mentioned, which contains sixteen diagrams apparently drawn under Joachim’s direction and collected after his death in 1202.21 These detailed drawings, which incorporate explanatory words of Joachim, do not illustrate specific scenes of the Apocalypse but instead express in symbolic pictures the essence of Joachim’s views on history and eschatology.

Over the centuries the Apocalypse has also inspired countless painted panels. These include altarpieces such as that painted by Jan Van Eyck for a chapel of Saint John in the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent.22 Its central panel, known as the “Mystical Lamb,” exemplifies an interpretation that goes back to Tyconius and Augustine, which emphasizes relevance for the church in the present time. Here the division between heaven and earth is transcended in the Eucharistic feast, as the Lamb in the midst of the throne (Rev. 5) is found on an altar on earth. Another 15th-century altarpiece, a triptych made by Hans Memling for St. John’s Hospital in Bruges (1475–1487), features numerous scenes from the life of John as well as a depiction of the seer experiencing the vision on Patmos. Scenes that appear frequently in painted panels include John’s vision in Revelation 1 (e.g., Hieronymus Bosch, Stadliche Museen, Berlin, ca. 1500).

The link between the Apocalypse, art, and history is nowhere better seen than in Sandro Botticelli’s The Mystic Nativity which is inspired by Revelation, despite its depiction of the Nativity. The caption, written in Greek capitals, indicates that the picture links to Revelation 11–12 and also to the political upheavals in Italy and Florence, which came about as the result of the apocalyptic preaching of Savonarola:

I, Alexandros, was painting this picture at the end of the year 1500 in the troubles of Italy in the half time after the time according to the chapter of St. John in the second woe of the Apocalypse in the loosing of the devil for three and a half years. Then he will be chained, and we shall see him trodden down, as in this picture.

In the inscription he links the ascent of the beast from the bottomless pit in 11:7 with the loosing of the devil after the millennium (20:3, 7). Botticelli writes of the second woe of 11:14, after which, in Revelation 11, the loud voices in heaven proclaim that the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of the Lord and of the Messiah. It parallels the kind of overcoming of the forces of darkness referred to in John Milton’s “Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” (1629): “And then at last our bliss / Full and perfect is, / But now begins; for from this happy day / Th’ old Dragon under ground, / In straiter limits bound, / Not half so far casts his usurpéd sway, / And, wroth to see his kingdom fail, / Swinges the scaly horror of his folded tail” (cf. Rev. 12:4).23 Botticelli reads Revelation 11–12 as a prophecy of the eschatological realities of his day, in which the period of Antichrist prefigures the return of the Messiah and the overcoming of the powers of darkness, signified by the vision of the woman in Revelation 12 who gives birth to the Messiah. The bruising of the serpent’s head of Genesis 3:15 may be depicted in the form of the little beaten devils that crawl away into their holes, reflecting Revelation 6:15. Viewers are led up the path to the central scene of the picture framed by the dawn sky. Angels and humans embrace in the eschatological glory now revealed, as Florence becomes the focus of this apocalyptic deliverance.

Nowhere is John’s visionary state better captured than in Diego Velázquez’s work St John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos. Velázquez depicts John “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:9). The ecstatic prophet fills the whole picture.24 John “in the Spirit” responds to the command to write, as the empty page offers him the space for the divine words, which have so much import (“I warn every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if any one adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book,” Rev. 22:18). There is a glimpse of what John sees in his vision in the top corner of the image, where the vision of the Woman being pursued by the dragon may be glimpsed.25

William Blake explicitly traced a line of continuity between his own idiosyncratic myth and John’s vision, for John, too, had seen what Blake had seen.26 Both manifested the “Poetic Genius, the Spirit of Prophecy.”27 Blake’s imaginative engagement with Revelation reflects the kind of actualizing exegesis of Tyconius. Contemporary events become a part of Blake’s creative engagement with Revelation and inform Blake’s understanding of his own political situation. For example, in 1798, in the margin of his copy of the Bishop of Llandaff’s Apology for the Bible, he wrote: “To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life. The Beast and the Whore rule without controls.”28

The “picture-making words” of the Apocalypse have stimulated the imagination and its translation into visual images and representations in paintings.29 Artists down the centuries have offered their understanding of the problems posed by the text as they sought to visualize and express it in their images. While images offer a stimulus to the imagination, through visualization as a path to engagement with and interpretation of scripture, parallel to the ways in which the language of the Apocalypse itself functioned, every image is itself a fossilization of that stimulus and, as such, can restrict imagination as much as stimulate picture making in the imagination of those who engage with it. That said, there is something particularly apt about visual exegesis of the Apocalypse, which is in continuity with what this text seems to provoke by its comparisons and allusiveness. Botticelli describes his Mystic Nativity as a γραφη‎ (graphe), and his picture not only includes words but also is “writing” in pictorial form, offering an exegesis of Revelation exploring the imaginative space that an allusive text like Revelation may offer. The images are more a gateway opening up the text to new interpretative possibilities.

Review of the Literature

Despite its link with expectations about the cataclysmic end to history, Revelation has had an important part to play in Christian intellectual history. Its framework contrasting the earthly and heavenly cities is the inspiration for Augustine’s classic statement of Christian theology, and it has proved to be one resource, along with other biblical prophetic texts, for prognostications about the eschatological future. As the present article indicates, there are two major approaches to the interpretation of Revelation: (a) one in which the book is translated from the dramatic apocalyptic images into key persons and events in history, whether past, present, or future, and (b) another in which it is interpreted figuratively as the struggle that goes on in the individual and society between competing sets of values. Scholarship on the book has often reacted against its varied use. Thus, at the time of the Reformation, there emerged an interpretative approach that has held sway in subsequent historical scholarship, which relates Revelation solely to the politics, history, and circumstances of writing in the final decades of the 1st century ce, whether that be during the reign of Nero (as seems likely in the light of Revelation 17:9–11) or of Domitian (which is what Irenaeus suggests in Against the Heresies v. 30.3). Alongside this there have been many attempts to see its events being acted out in history and its images speaking to the shortcomings of society, whether ecclesial or political. The Apocalypse has played a significant role in Christian iconography and has been a feature in modern culture and film.30

Links to Digital Materials

Primary Sources

The starting place for this article is the book of Revelation and the textual tradition culminating in the modern translations of it. Examples of analogous texts contemporary with Revelation may be found in the following list.

Charlesworth, James H. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1983.

Collins, John. Apocalypse: Morphology of a Genre (Semeia 14). Missoula, MT: Scholars, 1979.

Backus, I. Reformation Readings of the Apocalypse: Geneva, Zurich and Wittenberg. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Boxall, Ian. Patmos in the Reception History of the Apocalypse. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Burdon, Christopher. The Apocalypse in England: Revelation Unravelling, 1700–1834. London: Macmillan, 1997.

Carruthers, Mary. The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Carruthers, Mary. The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400–1200. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Collins, John, B. McGinn, and S. Stein. Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism. New York: Continuum, 2000.

Daley, Brian. The Hope of the Early Church. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press Cambridge, 1991.

Emmerson, Richard, and B. McGinn, eds. The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Erdman, David. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Kovacs, Judith, and C. Rowland. Revelation: The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

Lieb, Michael. The Visionary Mode: Biblical Prophecy, Hermeneutics, and Cultural Change. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Maier, Harry. Apocalypse Recalled: The Book of Revelation after Christendom. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002.

O’Hear, Natasha. Contrasting Images of the Book of Revelation in Late Medieval and Early Modern Art: A Case Study in Visual Exegesis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Patrides, C.A., and J. Wittreich, eds. The Apocalypse in English Renaissance Thought and Literature: Patterns, Antecedents and Repercussions. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Prigent, Pierre. Commentary on the Apocalypse of St. John. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr, 2001.

Reeves, Marjorie, and B. Hirsch-Reich. The Figurae of Joachim of Fiore. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Rowland, Christopher. The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Christianity. London: SPCK, 1982.

Schiller, Gertrud. Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst. Part 5, Die Apokalypse des Johannes. 2 vols. Gütersloh, Germany: Mohn, 1990.

van der Meer, Frederik. Apocalypse: Visions from the Book of Revelation in Western Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.

Wainwright, Arthur. Mysterious Apocalypse. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1993.

Further Reading

Babcock, William S. Tyconius: The Book of Rules. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Boyer, Paul. When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1992.Find this resource:

Carey, Frances. The Apocalypse and the Shape of Things to Come. London: British Museum, 1999.Find this resource:

Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium. London: Paladin, 1957.Find this resource:

Collins, John. The Oxford Handbook of Apocalyptic Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Corns, Thomas, A. Hughes and D. Loewenstein. The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Deppermann, Klaus. Melchior Hoffmann. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1987.Find this resource:

Hill, Christopher. The English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution. London: Penguin, 1993.Find this resource:

McGinn, Bernard. Apocalyptic Spirituality. London: SPCK, 1979.Find this resource:

Reeves, Marjorie. The Influence of Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages: A Study of Joachism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Rowland, Christopher. “English Radicals and the Exegesis of the Apocalypse.” In Die prägende Kraft der Texte: Hermeneutik und Wirkungsgeschichte des Neuen Testaments, edited by M. Mayordomo, 160–177. Stuttgarter Bibelstudien 199. Stuttgart: Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk, 2005.Find this resource:

Rowland, Christopher. “Imagining the Apocalypse,” New Testament Studies 51, no. 3 (2005): 303–327.Find this resource:

Rowland, Christopher. Blake and the Bible. London: Yale University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. London: Thames & Hudson, 1955.Find this resource:

Stringfellow, William. An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. Waco, TX: Word, 1973.Find this resource:

Walliss, John, and K. Newport. The End All around Us: Apocalyptic Texts and Popular Culture. London: Equinox, 2009.Find this resource:

Walliss, John, and L. Quinby. Reel Revelation: Apocalypse and Film. Bible in the Modern World 31. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2010.Find this resource:


(1.) John Collins, Apocalypse: Morphology of a Genre (Semeia 14) (Missoula, MT: Scholars, 1979), 9.

(2.) Christopher Rowland, The Open Heaven: A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Christianity (London: SPCK, 1982), 403–413.

(3.) Gershom Scholem, 1955; and Michael Lieb, The Visionary Mode: Biblical Prophecy, Hermeneutics, and Cultural Change (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).

(4.) Frances Carey, The Apocalypse and the Shape of Things to Come (London: British Museum, 1999), 232.

(5.) Klaus Deppermann, Melchior Hoffmann (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1987).

(6.) William S. Babcock, Tyconius: The Book of Rules (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989).

(7.) William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Waco, TX: Word, 1973), 114.

(8.) Judith Kovacs and Christopher Rowland, Revelation: The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).

(9.) Eusebius, of Caesarea Ecclesiastical History, iii.28.3; Backus, 2000.

(10.) Richard Emmerson and Bernard McGinn, The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992); and Marjorie Reeves, The Influence of Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages: A Study of Joachism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

(11.) Martin Luther, Preface to the New Testament, 12.

(12.) Deppermann, Melchior Hoffmann; and Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (London: Paladin, 1957).

(13.) Christopher Burdon, The Apocalypse in England: Revelation Unravelling, 1700–1834 (London: Macmillan, 1997).

(14.) Christopher Rowland, “English Radicals and the Exegesis of the Apocalypse”, 2005.

(15.) Gerrard Winstanley, The True Levellers Standard Advanced; and Thomas Corns, Ann Hughes, and David Loewenstein, The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley, vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 13.

(16.) Gerrard Winstanley, Fire in the Bush; and Corns, Hughes, and Loewenstein, vol. 2, 190–194.

(17.) P. Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Belknap), 1992.

(18.) Bernard McGinn, Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, vol. II. (New York: Continuum), 2000.

(19.) Schiller, 1990, 117; and Emmerson and McGinn, The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages.

(20.) Trier, Stadbibliothek, ms. 31; Schiller, 1990, 142–144; F. Van der Meer, Apocalypse: Visions from the Book of Revelation in Western Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978), 92–100.

(21.) Marjorie Reeves, and Beatrice Hirsch-Reich, The Figurae of Joachim of Fiore. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972; Bernard McGinn, Apocalyptic Spirituality (London: SPCK, 1979), 103–111; Schiller, 1990, 168–171.

(22.) Schiller, 1990, 307–311; F. Van der Meer, Apocalypse: Visions from the Book of Revelation in Western Art, 236–257.

(23.) John Milton, “Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” xviii.

(24.) Harry Maier, Apocalypse Recalled: The Book of Revelation after Christendom (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002).

(25.) Ian Boxall, Patmos in the Reception History of the Apocalypse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 205–207; and Christopher Rowland, ‘Imagining the Apocalypse’, 2005, 310–312.

(26.) William Blake, Four Zoas, Night, 8, 592–620; and Christopher Rowland, Blake and the Bible (London: Yale University Press, 2010), 146.

(27.) William Blake, All Religions Are One, Principle 5; David Erdman, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 1.

(28.) Erdman, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, 611.

(29.) Mary Carruthers, The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400–1200 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 152–153.

(30.) Schiller, 1990; J. Walliss and K. Newport, The End All around Us: Apocalyptic Texts and Popular Culture (London: Equinox, 2009); and John Walliss and Lee Quinby, Reel Revelation: Apocalypse and Film. Bible in the Modern World 31 (Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Phoenix Press), 2010.