Baldwin Apocalypse and Revelation by AM3020p


									Apocalypse and Revelation: Two Related Elements in Christian Culture Through 1700

Robert Baldwin
Associate Professor of Art History
Connecticut College

(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
empirical reason, technological advancement, and scientific culture which triumphed in the 18th-
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.

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