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Friday, November 8, 2013

Apocalypse 101

by Rhea Daniels

Photo: Jack Vartoogian

For his 21-dancer apocalyptic extravaganza, And then, one thousand years of peace, Angelin Preljocaj takes his choreography to the end of the world. Not satisfied to tell your standard Armageddon tale, Preljocaj drew inspiration directly from the Revelation of St. John the Divine.

Biblical scholar Elaine Pagels describes the work’s final volume as “the weirdest book of the Bible.” As she says: “There are no stories in it or ethical teachings… it’s not what one expects of biblical books on the whole. Basically it’s visions—it’s dreams and nightmares.”

Written approximately 60 years after the death of Jesus, St. John claimed that the visions of war and disaster foretelling the end of the world came to him when he was in an ecstatic state, when the heavens opened up to him and the voice of God spoke to him.

It has been suggested by biblical scholars and historians that the scenes of destruction that John describes are events that would occur shortly after his writing in the first century—things that he could well have predicted without the help of a revelatory vision from God. Going by this explanation, the Apocalypse happened in the First century. The imagery is so adaptable, yet so visceral, that according to many modern artistic interpretations not only has the apocalypse already happened, it is happening and is going to happen.

Pagels' lecture on interpreting the Revelation of St. John and other revelatory texts can be read here.

The gory violence, wholly otherworldly imagery, and easily adaptable symbolism of this Revelation have provided endless inspiration for artists since its writing.

Probably the most famous of the symbols from St. John’s Revelation are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from Revelation Chapter 6. The symbolic meaning of each horse differs slightly across the many representations, but most often one finds that the white horse represents conquest, the red horse war, the black horse famine or pestilence, and the pale horse—often ridden by a skeletal figure—means death is coming.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, ca. 1497–98
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528)
Woodcut (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
One of the great expressions of the theme is the 1921 silent movie, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which launched Rudolph Valentino into stardom. The “Four Horsemen” in the film arrive metaphorically through the ravages of WWI. It was one of the top grossing silent movies of all time.

The movie was re-made (to less acclaim) in 1962 by Vincente Minelli; this time the apocalypse was translated to WWII.

The idea of the Revelation as primarily a wartime text has pervaded throughout its artistic manifestations. Preljocaj talks about how he was inspired to take on the theme of apocalypse for And then, one thousand years of peace, which was originally a collaboration between his company and the Bolshoi Ballet:
“Then suddenly I had this idea, instinctively, to re-read the Apocalypse of St. John. I was thinking, wow, it is a very nice thing, because there is a lot of metaphor, a lot of images, very powerful. In the beginning I didn't really understand why I had this intuition, but after awhile, as you said, he (St. John) was talking about the seven Revelations. Isn't it true that the two nations collaborating on this project, France and Russia, both had a very violent history and powerful revolutions in their histories. The French with their 1789 revolution and in Russia the 1913 Bolshevik revolution. In both cases it was really violent; not soft revolutions.”

At the end of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia is The Last Battle, Lewis’ version of the Book of Revelation for children.

St. John’s revelation has also been used as the inspiration for expressions of artistic fantasy. Dragons are real in the book of Revelation, they just haven’t arrived on Earth yet. St. John spoke of a seven-headed beast that comes to Earth at the time of the Apocalypse. The beast is sometimes ridden by Babylon the Great, the Mother of Prostitutes and Abominations of the Earth. (She’ll go by "the just whore of Babylon" for short.) It's a typical representation of the natural enemy.

La Bête de la Mer (Tapisserie de l'Apocalypse)—The Beast of the Sea (Tapestry of the Apocalypse)
See more illustrations of the seven-headed dragon.

John had a vision of Angels carrying bowls filled with the wrath of God. The Angel pours the wrath onto the ground and causes catastrophe on Earth. They look friendly enough, but could these be Preljocaj’s angels of doom and disaster?

In John’s vision one of the angels said, “There shall be time no longer.” This foreboding phrase was the inscription on the score of Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, which he composed when he Messiaen was a French POW in 1941 when he composed the piece. The end of the world must have felt very present for the musicians in the WWII prison camp. The piece was composed based on the notes that could be played on the camp’s broken instruments. Watch a visual art/performance tribute to the work by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Contemporary artists keep finding chilling ways of interpreting the Revelation of St. John for our times. Johnny Cash’s soul-stirring When the Man Comes Around is more than just a great tune about the end of the world. Cash makes direct references to the language of the King James Version of St. John’s Revelation. He gets in the horses, the beast, the throne, and the angels.

It’s not all doom in Revelation. A hopeful end of the world vision comes when John describes being invited into heaven and coming face-to-face with a divine throne. African-American artist James Hampton created The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly as a product of his own apocalyptic vision similar to that of St. John. Hampton appointed himself "Director, Special Projects for the State of Eternity." Created over 14 years, it was constructed out of gold and silver foil, cardboard, broken light bulbs, furniture, flower vases, and jelly jars, and a dozen 500-watt bulbs.

The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly by James Hampton
The lamb is mentioned dozens of times in the book of Revelation. Next to the throne, John saw an injured or slain lamb “who was to open the seals to the future.” The most common interpretation of the lamb is that it represents Jesus and often, it is often used by artists to depict a Christ-like sacrifice. Modern artists used the sheep as a metaphor for anyone who “takes the bullet” for the greater good.

Sometimes the lamb is the symbol for hope that has to be healed in order for the earth to be renewed. Do you remember The Silence of the Lambs?

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