The End is Night - or then again, perhaps it isn't. That is the message of "Apocalypse: the Final Revelation", an art exhibition inaugurated this week in the Sistine Hall of the Vatican Museums which aims to cast new light on a controversial biblical book.
The event, which will run until 7 December 2007, has been organized at the initiative of the St Florian Committee of the archdiocese of Udine, Italy. Its aim is to invite people "to reconsider the last book of the New Testament through a selection of masterworks, outstanding among them a series of ancient icons."
The exhibition is made up of around 100 pieces (codices, paintings on wood panel, canvases, sculptures, jewelry, engravings and drawings) dating from the 4th to the 20th century. They come from some of the most important museums in Europe and the United States: the Vatican Museums, the Louvre, the Pompidou Center, the Musee de Cluny, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, the national museums of Budapest and of Warsaw, and St Mark's Basilica in Venice.
Among the artists whose works are on display are: Beatus of Liebana, Pedro Berruguete, Guido Reni, Alonso Cano, Albrecht Durer, El Greco, Francisco Zurbaran, Salvador Dali, Giorgio de Chirico, and many others.
One large section of the exhibition is made up of Byzantine and Russian icons, including one of the vision of the Apocalypse from the Monastery of St. John the Theologian in Patmos, the Greek island where the Apostle wrote the last book of the Bible.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is composed of important works that record the history of the artistic representation of the Apocalypse, these include: a series of 16 engravings by Durer from the "Apocalypsis in figuris;" Guido Reni's "St. Michael Defeating Satan;" El Greco's "Immaculate Conception" inspirited by the apocalyptic vision of the woman clothed with the sun; the "Savior Enthroned" by the School of Novgorod; Catalan Romanesque and French Gothic sculptures; and the book "Apocalypse" containing works by seven 20th century artists, published by Josef Foret in 1961 and blessed by Pope John XXIII.
The Revelation of St John is a work rich in imagery and emanated from an early Christian community facing imperial persecution. It has been a playground for religious fantasists, who do not take its origins and style seriously, but prefer to impose their own modern meanings for many years.
In the US and elsewhere the religious right has used the book (often wrongly referred to as 'Revelations' in the plural) as a manifesto for their own apocalyptic wishes. But scholars say this has little to do with the text properly studied.
More on Revelation and end-timeism: Endism is nigh, texts are tricky (Simon Barrow).