Apocalypse and Revelation: Two Related Elements in Christian Culture Through 1700
Associate Professor of Art History
(This brief essay was written in Feb. 2011 for my survey course to assist in the understanding of Dürer and El Greco.)
Classical Circular Time vs. Christian Linear Time
In contrast to classical notion of cosmic and universal timer as circular in accord with the planetary orbits and seasonal cycles, the Judaeo-Christian tradition introduced linear notions of time unfolding according to Divine Providence from a beginning (Genesis) to a final end (Apocalypse). For classical philosophers like Aristotle, linear time makes no sense, has no ending or purpose, and is incompatible with the natural order and divine reason. For the first few centuries of their new religion, Christians believed the final end was near, and with it the Second Coming of Christ as Judge. Although this Apocalyptic strain in Christianity lost ground by the fourth century AD, medieval Christianity preserved and expanded new ideas of linear time and developed elaborate schemes for connecting earlier and later periods to reveal time’s larger unity as a single, unfolding plan directed by divine providence. The Old Testament was comprehensively interpreted to signal coming events in the New Testament and in the later period of the Christian Church.
Revelation, Old Testament Passages, and the Christian Composite of the Last Judgment Revelation is the English title of the last book of the translated Bible. It describes the chaotic and sinful end of all worldly time, the destruction of the physical universe, the punishment of all peoples, the marking out of a select few for salvation, and a final battle between God and Satan where the forces of good prevail once and for all. The Last Judgment with the weighing of souls and the opening of the gates of heaven and hell is not described in Revelation and relies more on other Biblical texts, many scattered in short, ambiguous passages in the Old Testament. These were collected by medieval Christian writers and transformed into a coherent narrative about the Second Coming and the weighing of souls which is largely absent from the New Testament. Here is a great example of how medieval Christians selectively interpreted aspects of the Old (and New) Testament to construct Christian “realities” and to refer forward in time to distinctly Christian events outside Judaism.
Revelation: a Christian Book and a Christian Idea Tied to the Next World
The Apocalyptic events described in Revelation appear as a divine vision given to St. John the
Evangelist who writes them down in a book. The word revelation is an appropriate name for a section of the Bible devoted to imagining the end of time. We use the word “revelation” more generally to describe things and ideas beyond reason and human comprehension, irrational ideas accepted more through a leap of faith. Revelation is intrinsically hierarchical in privileging
divine truths and visions handed down from above. Although classical antiquity had its share of divinely inspired seers, sibyls, and oracles, classical culture focused on wisdom and truth discovered by human reason and empirical study. Even the more metaphysical Plato used human reason and debate (dialectic) to rise up to the higher reality of divine ideas.
In a nutshell, classical culture focused on a more natural, circular time and on the earthly sphere of human life, politics, morality, and science just as early Christian culture turned away from “pagan” reason to embrace Christian mystery, faith, and revelation and a new focus on the next
world, the eternity beyond the transitory, illusory, and sinful realities of earthly existence.
Apocalypse as a Strain in the Christian Tradition Resurgent in Times of Crisis Throughout the Middle Ages (400-1400) and Renaissance (1400-1700), the central importance of Christianity in European society allowed Apocalyptic fervor to surge at times of political chaos, religious upheaval, perceived moral disarray, and natural disaster. Here later Christians drew on the prominence of these earthly disturbances in the Book of Revelation as prophetic signs of the impending end. Major chronological turning points such as the final years of each century could also generate Apocalyptic anxieties and fuel Apocalyptic culture (books, images, processions, social behavior) such as Dürer’s illustrated Book of Revelations printed in 1498.
Grounded in medieval Christian values, Apocalyptic spirituality remained an important element in Christian culture through the sixteenth century before slowly succumbing to the new power of thempirical reason, technological advancement, and scientific culture which triumphed in the 18-
century Enlightenment. Already in the sixteenth century, we can speak of a relative decline in the Christian Apocalyptic tradition as Renaissance humanism made reason, classical philosophy, and empirical matters central to modern education and elite consciousness. The primary fuel for Apocalyptic thinking in the sixteenth century was the violent struggle between Catholic and Protestant (1520-) which lent itself easily to Apocalyptic overtones. It is also true that the Christian culture of revelation waned, though more slowly, with the gradual rise of humanism between 1400 and 1700. While Catholic authorities continued to promote the hierarchical culture of revelation – of sacred wisdom and doctrine handed down from above – Renaissance
humanism spreading throughout European educational institutions, new academies of science, arts, and letters, and printed books written in the vernacular, circulated a very different culture of scientific enquiry, empirical investigation, human reason, and intellectual ambition focused on this world. While faith and revelation remained strong in high culture right through the seventeenth century (as seen in the late works of Rembrandt or the writings of Pascal), they steadily lost ground to more rational and positivistic values. Indeed, the next century proudly named itself the Age of Reason.
Apocalypse After 1700 as the Spiritual Anxiety of Secularized Individuals
After 1700, the age of Christian Apocalypse and Revelations was largely over in the world of high culture. Although some aspects of Apocalyptic imagery and spirituality were briefly revived in Romanticism in the early nineteenth century (Blake) and in some of the Symbolists and Expressionists (Kandinsky, Grosz) between 1890 and 1920, these later revivals emerged from a profoundly secular world and were championed not by religious officials but by free-spirited artists and poets alienated from the perceived materialism and degeneration of modern society while remaining hostile to traditional religion and institutional authority. In the hands of these
modernists, Apocalyptic imagery served the quest for a private, individual spirituality fashioned
by the liberated, isolated, alienated, modern self.