The Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse, was a popular subject in medieval art.1 Direct artistic rendering usually involved a sequence of panels and some necessary simplification of the text's densely detailed descriptions. (See the examples to the right.)
But aside from these direct renderings, the book strongly influenced a number of other iconographic types. For example, "Immaculate Conception" imagery starting in the later Middle Ages borrowed from Revelation's "woman clothed with the sun" (12:1). Like the woman, Mary was posed in front of a sunburst, her head surrounded by twelve stars, and a crescent moon beneath her feet. In another example, countless images picture the archangel Michael's expulsion of Satan and his followers from Heaven (example), closely following Revelation 12:7-9. Even more common was the identification of the four creatures of 4:7 with the four evangelists (example).
The author of Revelation identifies himself simply as "John," in exile on the island of Patmos (1:4,9). As early as the second century commentators decided that this John, the apostle John, and the author of the Gospel of John were all the same person. Taking this cue, artists consistently portray the author as the young and beardless apostle, sitting on an island with pen and book, and gazing up at a vision of Heaven (example).
In the first millenium Revelation also influenced the decoration program in some churches. At Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, for example, the left and right sides of the nave each feature a long procession of martyrs carrying crowns as they approach a throne. The crowns are shaped like the laurel crown of victory that the iconography of martyrs borrowed from classical images of athletic contests, but they are made of gold. Thus they refer at the same time to the golden crowns that the elders place before the throne in Revelation 4:4,9 and to the athletic "prize" won by the just in 1 Corinthians 9:24. Moving as they do toward the apse with its altar, the two processions give the viewers a strong sense they they too are approaching the real presence of Christ.
This sense is expressed even more emphatically in the two arches that precede the apse at St. Praxedes in Rome:
Here the outer arch pictures the arrival of the blessed at the gates of Heaven, where Christ is flanked by the twelve Apostles and the basilica's two patron saints. Then in the inner arch we see the twenty-four elders bringing their golden crowns to a jeweled throne surrounded by "a halo as brilliant as an emerald" (Apocalypse 4:3). On the throne is the Lamb "that seemed to have been slain" (Apocalypse 5:6), the slaying here signified by the cross behind him.
Prepared in 2020 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University