Review: Contrasting Images of the Book of Revelation in Late Medieval and Early Modern Art

Natasha F. H. O’Hear, Contrasting Images of the Book of Revelation in Late Medieval and Early Modern Art: A Case Study in Visual Exegesis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. xvii + 287 pp., £83.00/$150.00 cloth. 

In this monograph, Natasha F. H. O’Hear analyses the interpretation of the Book of Revelation in seven case studies of medieval and early modern art. She emphasizes the visual interpretation history of the Apocalypse and suggests that an “exclusive focus on textual exegesis … is in danger of distorting the interpretation of this most visual of books.”[p. 1] The artistic works with which she interacts enable “us to map different hermeneutical strategies … between the images and their corresponding texts.”[p. 5] Generally, O’Hear’s approach brings together “the interests of the art historian and the biblical exegete … in an attempt to understand the hermeneutical and exegetical strategies at work in the images considered.”[p. 7]

In Chapter 1, O’Hear analyses the Lambeth Apocalypse (1260-1275, hereafter LA). This illuminated biblical manuscript, situated in the Anglo-Norman tradition, was completed by multiple authors.[p. 22] The patron was a woman and she appears kneeling in fo. 48.[p.23] O’Hear notes that the patron likely could not read the Latin text. This emphasized the importance of the images embedded in the manuscript and the addition of two quires of images related to the life of the Apostle John. John is a key figure in LA, appearing in almost every image. He is the portrayed as “the post-Lateran IV, clerical ideal.”[p. 34]

Next, O’Hear discusses the Angers Tapestry (1373, hereafter AT). She notes that, at 130 x 4.5m, AT is “the largest surviving narrative representation” of Revelation and that “there are important flashes of exegetical complexity in Angers which reveal a deep understanding of the Book of Revelation and its developing interpretive traditions.”[p. 45] O’Hear also notes that the viewing experience of a tapestry differs from the reading of an illuminated manuscript and that “the Angers images evoke the text rather than merely transposing it into a visual medium.”[p. 54]

In Chapter 3, O’Hear analyses two Flemish altarpieces: Ghent Altarpiece (Van Eyck; 1432) and St John Altarpiece (Memling; 1479). According to O’Hear, “the Ghent Altarpiece is a visualization of the communion of the mystical body of the Deity and the Church that was believed to take place during the celebration of the Eucharist.”[p. 70] She notes the effect of the synchronic presentation style and suggests that Olivier de Langhe’s Tractus de corpre Christi might be the source text of the work. In reference to Memling’s St John Altarpiece, O’Hear notes that the right hand panel is a synchronic description of Rev 1-13 and that the piece’s depictions of John’s vita “locate John’s apocalyptic visions … within his life story in one glance.”[p. 90]

In Chapter 4, O’Hear analyses Botticelli’s The Mystic Nativity (c.1500). Upon first glance, the painting appears to represent Luke 2.1-20 but Botticelli’s Greek inscription at the top of the work and the speared devil and other angelic figures point toward Revelation as a major influence. O’Hear notes the pervasive apocalyptic and millenarian expectation in Florence at the end of the fifteenth century and suggests that Savonarola’s 1496 sermon influenced Botticelli.[p. 109] She also undertakes a detailed analysis of the iconography of the Nativity,[pp. 118-132] and suggests that Botticelli understood the nativity as “itself an eschatological event, in which the powers of darkness are overcome and a new age begins.”[p. 129]

In Chapter 5, O’Hear discusses two examples of early modern German woodcuts: Albrecht Dürer’s Apocalypse series (1495-6) and Lucas Cranach’s visualization of Revelation published in the Luther Bible (1522). O’Hear traces the tradition of German Apocalypse woodcuts from the Koberger Bible (1483)—published by Dürer’s grandfather—to Dürer himself and on to Cranach. O’Hear also comments on Dürer as interpreter,[pp. 160-175] arguing that he ought not to be labeled a “proto-Reformer.”[pp. 174-175] In reference to Cranach’s work, O’Hear undertakes a similar analysis, highlighting the literalistic and polemical nature of Cranach’s overtly Protestant visualizations.

In her final chapter, O’Hear offers hermeneutical reflection on the “visual exegesis” present in her text cases, and concludes by discussing the “re-envisioning” of the text of Revelation. She argues that, based on the data gleaned from her examples, the text of Revelation is likely based on a genuine visionary experience.[p. 226] This leads her to conclude that “it is perhaps visual artists, rather than textual exegetes, who may by most receptive to the visionary nature of the text.”[p. 226]

The analysis that O’Hear has offered is a serious work of erudition and positive contribution to multiple academic fields. First, her ability to synthesize the relationship between geographically and diachronically disparate artistic traditions (Anglo-Norman, French, Flanders, Florentine, German; c.1260-1522) is bold and paints a portrait of European Apocalypse art during the period. Second, O’Hear’s historical analysis and examination of the images of each work is detailed and properly contextualizes the discussion. Third, her intentionally interdisciplinary methodology allows her the freedom to discuss multiple issues relating to each piece. These include questions of history and provenance, artistic composition, textual reading strategies, iconographic and religious concerns, and history of interpretation.

The wide parameters of this work come with minor drawbacks. First, in places, O’Hear’s argument is difficult to follow. At times, she discusses many interesting phenomena that add little to her primary point. For example, her discussion of the “Pope Joan” legend.[pp. 193-194] Second, O’Hear’s contrast between textual and visual exegesis is unnecessary. Both forms of exegesis involve the same interpretive mechanics but use difference mediums to express the interpretation. In reference to “John” himself, she is right to point out that a genuine visionary experience may underlie Revelation. However, that potential visionary experience is only accessible, ironically, through the text. A secondary issue with the volume is that the colour prints of the test cases are situated in a group in the middle of book apart from her commentary on them. This is an editorial issue but an interesting problem in light of O’Hear’s discussion on the relationship between text and image in illuminated manuscripts.

I recommend this volume for anyone with an interest in any aspect of medieval and early modern artwork inspired by Revelation.

Review by Garrick V. Allen


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