Daniel 7:1–8, 15–28
Daniel’s Four Beasts
Commentary by Rembrandt Duits
At first glance, it appears to be a poetic vision. The full moon hovers over a tranquil bay. We are standing on a rugged coastline, surrounded by romantic ruins. A lone pillar enveloped in ivy marks perhaps the ideal site for a nightly rendezvous of furtive lovers.
It is, however, a dystopia—the fifth of a quintet of paintings by the British-American artist Thomas Cole (1801–48), which expresses the idea of cyclical history, linked to times of the day and weather patterns. The first work in the series shows mist evaporating from the mountainsides around the bay at sunrise, unveiling a society of hunter-gatherers not unlike some of the Native Americans still roaming the North-American plains and forests in freedom at the time the painting was made. In the second painting, a Stonehenge-like complex has been raised by the water, the focal point of a pastoral society in mid-morning. The third canvas reveals high-noon in a glorious empire—a superlative version of ancient Rome with a triumphal parade crossing a monumental bridge amidst countless temples and fora. Disaster strikes in the fourth painting, where violent climate change and hostile invasion combine to wreck the grandeur. Our work, the fifth and last, depicts merely what remains after the population has been extinguished.
Cole painted the series as a warning for an American empire that was still nascent, with the 25th State (Arkansas) joining the Union in the year the series was completed. It is a secularized prophecy, separated from the biblical notion of the end of days evoked in Daniel 7. Yet, at a time when modern Americans, and indeed everyone in the Western world might wonder at which hour of Cole’s day we find ourselves (at bright noon or on the brink of the tea-time collapse?), its message is no less potent than when voiced by the prophet.
Atack, Carol. 2018. ‘The Art of Historical Development: Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire’, www.anachronismandantiquity.wordpress.com
Commentary by Rembrandt Duits
One could be forgiven for thinking that this seventeenth-century painted panel looks like an intricate board game. Daniel’s Four Empires—four tiny enthroned figures in the bottom left corner—could be the characters players have to adopt at the start. Following the roll of the dice, their pieces would progress along the concentric circles with little scenes in the upper part of the panel, to reach the Virgin and Child enthroned in heaven in the centre; the menacing Last Judgement in the lower half of the work would be the ultimate pitfall to avoid.
In reality, this is a Greek Orthodox icon, probably painted for a monastery on Corfu. Its maker, Theodoros Poulakis (1622–92), was a refugee from the Ottoman conquest of Crete (1645–69). Trained among the famous icon painters of Crete, then a Venetian dominion, he left his hometown Chania when the Ottomans landed there in 1645 and spent the rest of his life in Venice and on the then-Venetian island of Corfu.
The scenes around the Virgin illustrate a hymn to the Virgin by John Damascene (c.675–749), which opens with the words ‘In Thee rejoiceth all creation…’; the top left quadrant of the outer circle shows the seven days of creation according to the book of Genesis. And as we have noted, the painter has also added the biblical vision of the end of all creation, the Last Judgement. In keeping with an Orthodox tradition that had emerged during the sixteenth century, this includes the four kingdoms that Daniel 7 predicted would precede the appearance of the Son of Man.
The fourth kingdom in Poulakis’s series—the Roman Empire—is represented by Constantine the Great, the founder of Constantinople, who had made Christianity the state religion. The implication is that the fourth empire had ended with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 and the time of the Kingdom of God was now. Venetian propaganda of the era projected the notion of the Kingdom of God defending itself against the onslaught of the Ottomans, and it is likely that Poulakis, too, intended his icon to be read in this vein.
Chatzedakes, M. and E. Drakopoulou. 1987–97. Hellēnes zōgraphoi meta tēn halōsē: 1450–1830, me eisagōgē stēn historia tēs zōgraphikēs tēs epochēs, 2 vols (Athens: Kentro Neoellenikon Ereunon); on Poulakis: vol. 1, 94 and vol. 2, 304–17; on the icon: vol. 2, 308–09.
Debby, Nirit Ben-Aryeh. 2014. ‘Crusade Propaganda in Word and Image in Early Modern Italy: Niccolò Guidalotto’s Panorama of Constantinople’, Renaissance Quarterly, 67.2: 503–43, esp. 522–24
Commentary by Rembrandt Duits
Like modern television producers, sixteenth-century Antwerp print makers were fond of stories that could be serialized. Serial subjects, such as the Four Seasons, the Five Senses, or the Seven Deadly Sins, guaranteed income from a market of collectors wont to covet the complete set.
It is no surprise, then, that print makers Maerten de Vos (1532–1603) and his engraver Adriaen Collaert (c.1560–1618) seized upon Daniel’s vision of the four beasts, with its attractive connotation of a chronological succession of four great empires known from biblical and classical history.
Their series of four engravings portrays Ninus as the founder of the Babylonian Empire, Cyrus as the founder of the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great as the founder of the Greek Empire, and Julius Caesar as the founder of the Roman Empire. Each ruler is on horseback carrying a banner, with rulers two to four (Cyrus, Alexander, and Julius Caesar) trampling the preceding defeated empire beneath them. Each appears against a backdrop with, on one side, a magnificent city, representing their empire and, on the other, one of the beasts from Daniel’s vision, emerging from the sea.
The image selected here is the third from the series, representing Alexander the Great. The Greek conqueror rides his favourite horse, Bucephalus; the artists show themselves aware of the meaning of the animal’s name, ‘bovine head’, rendering the horse with a distinctly cow-like face. To the left, we see the third of Daniel’s monsters, the leopard with four wings and four heads (clever exegesis linked the number four to the fact that Alexander’s empire was divided into four parts after his death). The city that represents Alexander’s empire on the right is built on hills and dominated by a great domed church; it seems to owe more to how the print makers may have envisaged Rome rather than to authentic Hellenistic architecture. Undoubtedly, however, collectors eagerly gathering the series would have taken delight in the wealth of detail that is on display.
Ann Diels, Ann. 2005/06The Collaert Dynasty, The New Hollstein, Dutch and Flemish Etchings, Woodcuts, and Engravings 1450–1700, Ouderkerk aan den Ijssel (Sound & Vision Publishers)
Thomas Cole :
The Course of Empire: Desolation, 1836 , Oil on canvas
Theodoros Poulakis :
The Hymn to the Virgin Icon; Eπί Σοί Xαίρει…(In Thee Rejoiceth...), an icon depicting a multitude of scenes, Second half of 17th century , Oil on panel (tbc)
Adriaen Collaert after Maerten de Vos :
Alexander the Great as the Third King, from the Vision of Daniel, 1570–1618 , Engraving
Rise and Fall
Commentary by Rembrandt Duits
When we find ourselves in a dire situation, we crave to know when the end might be in sight.
Things were no different around 600 BCE, during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar, when people from the kingdom of Judah were deported to captivity in Babylon and the prophet Daniel, a strict Jew, was forced to live surrounded by the opulence of the Babylonian court. Or so at least this text imagines him (Daniel 7 is likely to have been written in the second century BCE by a Jewish author who faced his own persecution from the Hellenistic ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes).
The writer portrays Daniel as the recipient of a series of spectacular eschatological visions, concerned with the end of time. In allegorical imagery that formed an important source for the later book of Revelation, Daniel narrates what to expect from the future, and, equally importantly, presents a rough timescale of when to expect it.
The opening eight verses of Daniel’s first vision (Daniel 7) describe four fantastic beasts emerging from ‘the great sea’ (v.2): a winged lion, that has its wings amputated and is converted into a biped with ‘a man’s heart’ (v.4); a bear with three ribs in its mouth between the teeth, which is instructed to ‘devour much flesh’ (v.5); a leopard with four wings and four heads (v.6); and a ‘dreadful and terrible’ creature with ten horns and iron teeth that wreaks destruction on the world (v.7). This fearsome foursome is ultimately followed by an appearance of the enthroned Ancient of Days and the Son of Man among the clouds of heaven.
In the explanation in the second half of Daniel 7, we learn that ‘these great beasts… are four kings’ (v.17), whose kingdom shall eventually be taken over by ‘the saints of the most High’ (v.18)—an interpretation that is related to Daniel’s earlier reading of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a statue made out of four different metals (Daniel 2). Daniel’s time-scale projects that there will be four successive worldly kingdoms before the eventual Kingdom of God.
The Daniel of 600 BCE would have witnessed first-hand the demise of the Babylonian empire and the rise of the Medo-Persian one. The first of Daniel’s two beasts (the winged lion and the bear) refer to these two empires. Writing with hindsight, a second-century BCE author would have known that the Persian empire in its turn had been overcome by Alexander the Great, whose Hellenistic empire is referred to by the third beast (the winged four-headed leopard), and that Greece was eventually conquered by the Roman state (the monster with ten horns and iron teeth).
Some artists took this succession of empires as a subject in its own right, such as the Antwerp duo Maerten de Vos and Adriaen Collaert in their series of four prints.
One event that was not foreseen by the author of the book of Daniel was that his Jewish text would become part of the Christian Bible, an integration that took place still within the context of the fourth, or Roman, empire. Christians, reading Daniel’s visions, started wondering when to expect the predicted Kingdom of God.
In medieval Europe, when most Christians lived in either the continuation of the eastern Roman empire (Byzantium) or a revival of the western one (the Holy Roman Empire), they could perceive this final transition as a point in the (near) future, usually associated with the Last Judgement. For propagandistic purposes, they could also argue that a struggle to establish the Kingdom of God was taking place in the here and now—a notion perhaps underlying the representation of the four kingdoms in the icon by Theodoros Poulakis, made during a time when Christianity was felt to be under threat from the Ottoman Turks.
As interesting as the precise meaning of Daniel’s vision of the four beasts is the cyclical conception of history that underlies it. This conception was not exclusive to Jewish visionaries of the Old Testament. The ancient Greek father of history, Herodotus, also describes historical events as a constant ebb and flow in the rule of now this centre of power, then another. In later Western consciousness, it was the fall of the Roman Empire that loomed large as a reminder that however great the might of a nation, there was always the threat of eventual (and perhaps inevitable) decline—as visualized in the series The Course of Empire by the nineteenth-century American painter Thomas Cole.
In that sense, Daniel 7:1–7 contains a warning that modern empires and those who believe in their greatness should perhaps take closely to heart.
Collins, John J., Peter W. Flint, and Cameron Van Epps (eds). 2002. The Book of Daniel: Composition and Reception (Leiden: Brill)
Niskanen, Paul. 2004. The Human and the Divine in History. Herodotus and the Book of Daniel (London: Continuum)
Spinney, Laura. 2012. ‘Human Cycles: History as Science, Nature, 488: 24–26
‘Cyclic View of Time in the Philosophy of History’, www.britannica.com