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Visions realised

11 September 2015

Nicholas Cranfield on the treatment of the Revelation of St John in the history of art

© tyndale house publishers

Modern take: an image by Nicolae Carpathia from the Left Behind series of graphic novels, featured in the book under review

Modern take: an image by Nicolae Carpathia from the Left Behind series of graphic novels, featured in the book under review

Picturing the Apocalypse: The book of Revelation in the arts over two millennia
Natasha O’Hear and Anthony O’Hear
OUP £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT611)


IN 2011, Natasha O’Hear published her 2008 doctoral thesis as a visual exegesis of the last book of the Bible in late-medieval and early-modern art, from the mid-13th century to 1522. With her father, the editor of the journal Philosophy, she has now extended that theological monograph, which was a study of the art of Van Eyck, Memling, Botticelli, Dürer, and Cranach the Elder.

The book follows much the same trajectory, and is divided into ten chapters that use art and music in a thematic exploration; the Angel of the Apocalypse, the Lamb, the Four Horsemen, the Seven Seals, the Woman Clothed with the Sun, and the Whore of Babylon, etc.

Each chapter treats of its subject chronologically. Messaien’s Quartet written in Stalag VIIIA in east Prussia and Bach’s Agnus Dei are deliberated. Bob Dylan rubs shoulders with William Blake. Aleister Crowley is cited with Brian Cox and Melvyn Bragg. For the doctored images of Barack Obama’s “Hope” and “Change” campaign posters we are referred to the SodaHead website, “for legal reasons”.

The rewrite is up-to-date to the extent that it includes Hans Haacke’s dreadful sculpture Gift Horse from the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square as part of a discussion of Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider and cartoons attacking G7. But this inclusion reads like mere tokenism to justify the subtitle of the book.

Avid use is made of illuminated manuscripts (all without folio references) including the early Silos Apocalypse (British Library) and that from Bamberg, the Trinity (Cambridge) Apocalypse, and the Lambeth Apocalypse of the same date (c.1260) and the Gulbenkian (c.1270). The great tapestry cycle of scenes from the Apocalypse in Angers which was commissioned for Louis I of Anjou, 1373-80, threads its way throughout.

Surprisingly, there is no discussion of the Mystery plays or of the great Doom paintings in churches here and across Europe; and no consideration is given to Shakespeare: Emrys Jones and more recently Hannibal Hamlin have shown the widespread references to the Apocalypse in Macbeth and in the structure of Anthony and Cleopatra. It might also have been prudent to have recourse to Stephen Smalley’s (2005) magis-terial commentary on the Revelation.

Questions of exegesis are often subjective. How the dozen crowned figures in the dome of the church of Abuna Gebre Mikael at Koraro in Ethiopia, each of whom carries a thurible and, in the left hand, a blessing cross, represent the 24 elders of Revelation 4.1-5, 14 we are not told.

In the Flemish Apocalypse at Revelation 17, when the Whore of Babylon offers the cup of abominations to John (ms. néerlandais 3, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris), the writers assume that the figures depict Crusaders with the flag of St George, whereas manifestly they are royal figures (each of whom is crowned), one of whom has the Easter pennant of resurrection.

The authors have not been well served by their publishers (OUP), who have yet to learn how to print black-and-white photographs legibly in the text; and I hope that I never get to read another book published by OUP which can claim of any author that she “completed a PhD [sic] on the subject at Oxford University”.


The Revd Dr Cranfield is Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, south London.

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