The Art of Apocalypse

Revelation 4-5 (esp. 5:11-14)

Jeremy Richards        

I’m no art connoisseur, but I like art. When Brie and I visit other cities, we often like to go to the art museums, even though we’ve never been to the Portland Art Museum, if you can believe that. But in New York we went to the Met and MOMA. In Italy we went to the Borghese Gallery. And then, every church in Italy was basically an art museum as well. While I’m not so into gold and gaudy decorations, I think it would be great if churches started looking like art museums again (maybe we could start with our church?). Our faith is too cerebral these days. In Amsterdam we went to the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk Museum. We’re total novices when it comes to art appreciation, and we have no real experience or talent when it comes to the visual arts, but every time Brie and I visit an art museum, we end up wishing we went more.

We like contemporary art the best, and I’m especially drawn to abstract art of all kinds. I really love the simple stuff that some people think takes no talent at all, like Rothko. The big blocks of color, the slightest, intentional imperfections. I eat that up. But I also like the more chaotic, strange abstract art. For example, I really like Chagall (I’ve now name-dropped 2 of the approximately 10 artists I know). Chagall was a Russian-French, Jewish artist who worked in many different mediums, but who is especially known for his dreamy paintings and his stain glass work.  

In seminary, I had to write a paper connecting Scripture and a work of visual art. I chose Chagall’s painting, Jacob’s Ladder. In the paper, I had to describe this work of art, and I realized just how hard it is to put a visual into words. Aside from some things just being too hard to describe, writing inevitably makes the art linear. You have to start with some detail and end with another. What do talk about first, second, third…last? What do you leave out? What do you describe in detail? How do you describe it?

If I were to describe Chagall’s Jacob’s Ladder to you, it’d be difficult to put it all together in your head, but you’d understand why. You’d understand that I’m struggling to put words to something that must be seen to be fully experienced. You’d also understand that, while every brush stroke was intentional, every color significant, every detail agonized over, that each of those details doesn’t, on it’s own, mean that much. Instead, the importance comes from the synthesis, from the coming together, the integration, of all those details. The sum is more than the parts, we might say. When you look at visual art, the first thing you do is take in the whole, then slowly you notice the details. Why is that person’s hand turned in that way? Where is the light coming from? What’s that, faintly visible in the shadows?

Unfortunately, when we read Revelation, we rarely think of it as art. But I’ll remind you that Revelation is a work of apocalyptic literature. Revelation is literature, and literature is art.

And beyond that, it’s a work of literature describing a vision – so in a way, it’s art interpreting art. It’s words trying to describe something visualized. John saw something apocalyptic, which all good art is, it reveals something – something about being human, something about the world, something about pain or joy or sorrow, maybe even something about God. We connect with art because it touches us at a deep level. Art, like apocalypse, is all about uncovering.

In Revelation, John’s trying to describe what he saw, like me trying to write a paper on Jacob’s Ladder. When we read it, it’s easy to get too bogged down in the details without taking in the whole, to miss the forest for the trees. I do believe that each and every detail in Revelation means something, that they are important, but first we must see Revelation not so much as a linear record, like the future’s history book written in the past, but instead like a painting, or a series of paintings that we first must “see,” must let them shock us, catch us, stir our imagination and evoke our wonder. Then, only then, can we start to look at the details (which we probably won’t have time to do very well in the 6 short weeks we have in Revelation).

So I’d like to read you a pretty long section of Revelation, 2 whole chapters, of which our reading today is the very end. And I want you to think of it as a painting, or a series of paintings, or as a movie. Remember that there was no TV back when this was written. This was the closest thing they had to Game of Thrones, and back then the whole book would have been read in one sitting to the congregation, so it was meant to read like an unfolding, action-packed story, full, of course, of theological and spiritual meaning, but also full of excitement and intrigue. They wouldn’t have had much time to focus on the details the first time they heard it. Instead, they would have taken it in as a whole, like a work of art. When read in that context, this book was, and still is, a real nail-biter.

(Read Revelation 4-5)

How exciting! 

When I picture this scene, I see 4 major movements. I like to think of them as 4 busy, abstract paintings. I’m going to explain these 4 paintings to you – my own interpretation of art, and then we’ll have time after the sermon for you to share how the art struck you. The first painting is of a large throne room. The painting would have to be huge to fit it all, and even then it would be busy and somewhat chaotic. In the middle of the painting is a throne, with an extremely abstract, almost incomprehensible figure – God – seated on it. John simply says the One on the throne “looks like jasper and carnelian.” Jasper is a gem that is usually red, but can be yellow, brown, green, and even blue, and carnelian, another gem, is usually brownish-red. So, in the painting, in my mind, God looks like some kind of abstract, brownish-red figure with maybe splotches and flecks of green, yellow, and blue. Around this large throne are 24 smaller thrones, with 24 elders wearing white robes and golden crowns. What do these elders look like exactly? Who knows! They could also be pretty abstract, maybe all different colors themselves, all different genders, all different animals (?). We just know their robes are white and their crowns are gold. Shooting out from the throne are flashes of lighting going every which-way. In front of the throne are seven blazing torches. Also in front of the throne is “something like a sea of glass, like crystal.” So there’s a lot going on. But we’re still not done. We haven’t gotten to the strangest, most exciting of figures – the four “living creatures” who are also around the throne – maybe inside the ring of the 24 elders? They’re covered by eyes in front and behind and even inside (whatever that means!). One looks like a lion, the second like an ox, the third like a human, and the fourth like a flying eagle. In addition to being covered with eyes, they’ve each got six wings. This is why I think the painting would have to be abstract. If I try and think of it as detailed and life-like, it makes no sense, but if I think of Picasso or Chagall, I can see them as dreamlike, almost fairytale creatures with splashes of color. They seem magical. Maybe even beautiful?

That’s the first painting I see. Pretty wild, huh? Even after putting my own spin on it, fleshing it out a bit, I guarantee each and every one of you sees it differently than anyone else here.

The next painting isn’t as wild. In my mind, it zooms in on a section of the 24 elders and the 4 living creatures, maybe, like 8 elders and two living creatures (let’s say the ox and the flying eagle), and just the edge of the throne and the sea of glass. Maybe two of the torches and just the hand of the One seated on the throne. In this painting, the elders are in the process of casting their crowns before the throne, and the extra space in the painting is filled with the two songs that are sung. The living creatures’ song, scribbled in the margins, says, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” And in another section, the elders’ song, “You are worthy, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” That’s the second painting. Still pretty wild, but not nearly so detailed as the first one.

At the center of the next painting is John (his first and only appearance in our series of paintings). He’s weeping, his face in his hands, tears running down his face. Off to one side is the throne, and the brown-red-with-specks-of-blue-and-green-and-yellow hand of the One who is on the throne, and in the hand is a scrolls with seven seals, unopened. In the background there’s maybe the faint, blotchy outline of elders and a couple living creatures. But somewhere else, maybe in the top corner opposite the hand with the scroll, is the faint outline of another figure. It’s shrouded in darkness and looks large, and powerful, maybe a bit like a lion. The overall feel of this painting is more dark and foreboding, because it represents doubt and uncertainty. Who will open the scroll?

In the fourth and final painting of our little exhibit, the mysterious figure from the previous painting is no longer shrouded in darkness but stands in the middle of the painting, bright and shining – a lamb who stands tall and victorious, yet has cuts and wounds. Around the lamb, ever so faintly, like pencil marks that have been mostly erased but not completely, is the outline of a lion. The lamb holds the scroll and the seals are broken. While it’s a prominent figure, it too is abstract, not fully comprehensible. It has seven eyes and seven horns. 

The lamb who was slain is the first things your eyes lock onto, but then you notice there’s more going on in the painting – a lot more. This painting is actually bigger than all the rest, in order to make room for everything. The lamb is next to the throne and the One who sits on the throne, the sea of glass is there, as are the seven torches. The four living creatures and the 24 elders are there, too, and they’re all bowing down. The space between the lamb and the throne and the sea of glass and the torches and the elders and the living creatures is filled with the words to their song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.”

Around the 24 elders, on all sides, are angels upon angels upon angels, not super detailed, just hazy angelic figures. This myriad of angels takes up almost the rest of the painting, but there’s a circle drawn around them, leaving a margin along the edges and especially in the corners. Along the edge of the circle is written their song: “Worthy is the lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”

The space that’s left, the margins on the sides of the painting and in the corners, is full of all kinds of creatures singing – giraffes and platypuses and belugas and ostriches and mountain lions and naked mole rats and on and on, you fill in the blanks. They’re all crowded together singing, and their song is written along the bottom: “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” 

There you go, there’s my verbal description of my visual image of the written words of Revelation 4-5.

If we were to see these 4 paintings, it would be impossible to say, in any simply terms, what these 4 works of art mean. We aren’t supposed to extract a single, straight forward meaning from art. Art moves you. It touches you in different ways all at once. And so, it’s impossible to say what this vision means. We might better say how this vision feels. We might speak of what it evokes in us. We might speak of what stands out to us.

I’ll note just a couple things that stand out to me, but they certainly won’t be what the passage is all about. There’s a lot more going on than I can discuss today. After I’m done, you’ll have a little time to reflect, then we’ll sing a song and you’ll have a chance to share what stood out to you. Maybe it’s something very different than what stood out to me. That’s how art works.

The two things I’d like to share come from the last painting, the one with the lamb in the center, which is, after all, what our actual reading for today is about.

I’m struck first and foremost, understandably, by this lamb at the center. When it was looming in the previous picture it looked like something more ferocious. In our reading one of the elders told John the scroll would be opened by “the Lion of the tribe of Judah,” but the figure who opens the scroll isn’t a mighty lion. It’s seems to be the opposite: a slaughtered lamb. Somehow the slaughtered lamb and the lion are one and the same. Art is wonderful at combining paradoxes that our rational minds can’t make sense of. Christ is the lion and the lamb. The two come together in him, just as human and divine come together in him. Christ, the lamb, is powerful, but the power of God is made manifest in what we so often think of as weakness. This is a theme running throughout the book of 1 Corinthians, and, indeed, the whole Gospel, which bears witness to a crucified Savior, a slaughtered lamb, the lion of Judah.

This is subversive, like all good art. This week I read a wonderful interview with one of my favorite writers, Marilynne Robinson, and Rowan Williams, a brilliant theologian and the former Archbishop of Canterbury about the place of art and imagination in the Church.

Speaking of literature, and remember Revelation is literature, Marilynne Robinson says, “Literature is…subversive. It wants you to think about something in a way that you would not otherwise. The same is true of poetry…Christianity is subversive in that sense. Christ became a slave. That undercuts cultural assumptions about what is valuable, what the hierarchies are. Art reproduces that great overturning whenever it’s good art.”[i]

Marilynne Robinson isn’t talking about Revelation particularly, but she hits the nail on the head in regards to this artistic portrayal of Jesus in Revelation, which, of course, is artistic. Jesus isn’t literally a 4-legged animal. But to get the point across, to subvert our understanding of power, John portrays Jesus as a lamb. This image of Jesus as a slaughtered lamb undercuts our ideas of how God works and who God works through. God works through the broken, the bleeding, the hurt, the vulnerable. God’s plan cannot be sidelined by the wounds of Christ, or by our wounds. The invincible (as if anyone were invincible) are not able to open the scroll. The slain one is. The damaged one. The one society has rendered irredeemable, dead. But that’s the one God redeems and resurrects. That’s who God becomes in Jesus. How subversive.

The next thing I notice in this final painting is how crowded it is. There are too many angels to fit into the circle, too many creatures to fit in the margins. All of creation – “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” – is singing, as are all the heavenly beings who surround the throne. This is rather shocking, considering the book of Revelation is often portrayed as a book about God’s judgement and wrath, about “good Christians” being taken away while God vents God’s wrath upon the created world. But Revelation’s ultimate climax is in the redemption of all the world. Yes, there is judgement and justice, but I would argue, along with other scholars, that it’s about restorative justice and not retributive justice. The goal is not punishment but redemption. And so, the picture we have today – and I mean picture quite literally! – is of all of creation singing out to the lamb who alone can open the scroll – who alone holds the destiny of the world.

Thank God. He truly is the only one who is worthy, the only one I would want to have that kind of responsibility. And that lamb, standing at the center of our final painting stands at the center of our lives, gently holding us and all of creation in his nail-pierced hands beckoning us to…sing.

And singing is, of course, art – art alive within us and flowing through us and blessing the margins between us.