by Natasha O'Hear and Anthony O'Hear
" It is hope, rather than destruction, that actually characterises apocalyptic thought. Perhaps this is something we would do well to remember "
As is typical of our time, over the past few months, many newscasters have used the words apocalypse or apocalyptic to evoke the negative implications of events as diverse as the threat of Grexit, music streaming wars, an asteroid threat, the American housing market, the migrant crisis, the continuing war in Syria and the negative state of the world more generally. Not to mention the flurry of posts which have appeared about upcoming instalment in the highly successful X-Men franchise, X Men: Apocalypse or our obsession with zombies.
We have reached a point where apocalyptic vocabulary litters writing, where Armageddon, the Four Horsemen, the Antichrist and many other words and phrases also lifted from the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation (or the Apocalypse as it is sometimes known), are used as a sort of shorthand for the calamitous times that we live in. In a way it is understandable: in a world of 24-hour news media, headlines have had to reach fever pitch in order to grab readers’ attention. Referencing the “end of the world” is, seemingly, the only thing that will suffice.
But calling upon apocalypticism so much ultimately has a numbing effect, whereby the state of the music industry is discussed using precisely the same terms as world poverty. Where man-made crises are viewed through the same apocalyptic prism as natural disasters such as the possible asteroid collision. There is a real sense in which the word apocalypse and its associated lexicon has lost its true meaning and impact.
This apocalyptic glut may be a recent thing in journalism, but such hypochondria isn’t actually a contemporary human trait. Taking a look at art through the centuries shows that each generation, each epoch, has seen themselves apocalyptically, albeit with great differences as to what the actual end will involve. As we explore in our recent book, Picturing the Apocalypse, each depiction of the end of the world gives away a lot about what the most pressing concerns were at the time.
In medieval times, the apocalypse was frequently figured in terms of national and cultural adversaries. So in the 13th century, the rise of anti-Semitism meant that Jews featured heavily in apocalyptic depictions, as seen in some beautiful Anglo-Norman illuminated apocalypse manuscripts. Christ and his followers are depicted as medieval knights, while the forces of Satan are sometimes depicted as Jewish, as in the Lambeth Apocalypse of c. 1260. This sentiment culminated with the expulsion of the Jews in 1290.
The fourth horseman in the Apocalypse of Angers.
Or in France, it was the English who were drafted in to herald the world’s end. In a similar way, in the French life-size 14th century Angers Apocalypse Tapestry (1373-80), the followers of the Beast (a metaphorical manifestation of Satan) are clearly English soldiers (it was, after all, the time of the Hundred Years War). Angers is also interesting in being one of the first occasions that the famous fourth Horseman – the bringer of death – is himself depicted as a skeleton, an interpretation which became increasingly common in the centuries to come.
Soon things turned more subjective. Memling and Dürer, for example, fixated more on the nature of the visionary experience via the figure of John of Patmos, the seer of the apocalyptic events that preceding the New Jerusalem. Dürer’s Apocalypse series of 1498 depicts John in his own likeness, the (rather grandiose) implication being that he is re-seeing the apocalypse for his own times.
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