Friday, 10 July 2015

Art Book Review: Picturing the Apocalypse by Natasha O’Hear and Anthony O’Hear

Pros: beautiful images, commentary on the images and the periods that produced them

Cons: repetition, very broad overview using a limited number of works, breaks 2000 years into 3 periods for discussion

[Note: The advanced reading copy of the book that I received for the purpose of this review did not include the colour plates.  The authors give good descriptions of each photo and in most cases I was able to look the images up online.]

Picturing the Apocalypse breaks down the last book in the Bible, the book of Revelations, into its composite parts as a way of detailing how artists over the years have illustrated each part.  The chapters consist of: The angelic guides and John’s journey, the Lamb, the Four Horsemen, the Seven Seals, the Woman Clothed with the Sun, the Satanic Trinity (ie, the beasts and Antichrist), The Whore of Babylon, Armageddon, the Millennium and the Last Judgement, the New Jerusalem and, finally, how the 20th and 21st centuries have utilized the imagery.

The authors picked a few representative works that they then used to illustrate the entirety of the book of Revelations.  This allows the reader to see both how different elements evolved over time as people from different periods adapted them, and also to see how the same sources in each period illustrated the work as a whole.  There are, of course, some works included in each chapter that only refers to that element (works where the artist didn’t illustrate the whole book but where seeing a few more examples helps show a wider range of influence).  The downside to this is that you’re only seeing a limited sampling of what’s out there, but being comprehensive with so broad a topic would cause its own problems.

The illustrations and works they picked are of great beauty and show the different elements to great advantage.  They also act as a jumping off point to doing more independent research.

Though the authors describe the images they’re citing very well, be prepared to flip back and forth between the text and images a lot, both because you’ll want to see what they’re pointing out in their descriptions but also because they often reference the images at different points in the text (so, for example, an image inset in chapter 8 will be mentioned in chapters 1 and 10 as well).

There’s a fair amount of repetition in the text and pointing the reader to the chapters where certain themes and concepts are addressed, giving the book the feel of something meant to be referenced by chapter (as by someone looking for images on a particular element) rather than something to be read from start to finish.  The chapter on 20-21st C representations especially points the reader to numerous images already discussed.

The authors tried to show the book of Revelations in context for the different periods that they discussed, mentioning that the author of the book was writing it not long after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, when Christianity was being persecuted and when people were looking for a militaristic saviour/end of the world to come.  Seeing how people of different ages turned the meaning of the vision to their own ends was fascinating.  

Having said that, while I understand the necessity of mentioning the feminist critiques of the book, specifically that the depiction of women is stuck in the dichotomy of mother/bride/virtuous woman vs whore is important, I was a bit surprised at how… apologetic the authors were when presenting this 2000 year old text.  Obviously the author and numerous illustrators weren’t concerned with 21st century ideals, so why should the authors of this commentary work feel the need to do more than comment on how perceptions change?  Along the same lines, I was surprised at the authors’ attempt to reconcile the ‘good’ God of the New Testament with the destruction inherent in the book of Revelation.  While Christ taught love, it’s clear that the God of the Old Testament had no problem with death and destruction (plagues of Egypt, ordering genocide of conquered nations, the flood).  And this is the God that an early Christian, familiar with the Hebrew religious texts, would have been familiar with.  Again, it seemed a bit strange that the authors were apologizing for a text and a view of the world that has since fundamentally changed.  Simply mentioning that some modern people have trouble with the reconciliation of a vengeful God with the Christian message, and how it impacts the modern view of Revelations, would have sufficed.

While not perfect, this is an excellent primer for looking at the book of Revelation from a artistic standpoint.  The authors have a deep understanding of the depictions of the various elements and make some interesting interpretations.  And it reproduces some gorgeous images. 

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